Josh Turner Sings from the Heart
By Robert L. Doerschuk
© 2006 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.
Part of it was the song — “Long Black Train,” a tune that seemed to beckon from a hundred years ago, with a lyric that mixed intimations of eternity with images of rails stretching toward doom or redemption.
Part of it was the venue — the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where every singer dreams of seizing America’s imagination at just the right moment. A lot of it had to do with the feel of the singer — Josh Turner, whose upbringing in the backwoods of South Carolina invested him with an unimpeachable Country pedigree. And, of course, there was the voice, a deep baritone that turned his national radio debut into a moment that would change his life forever.
Turner didn’t even have a record deal when he stepped up to the microphone on Dec. 21, 2001, and delivered a reading of “Long Black Train” that roused the audience to a standing ovation that wouldn’t quit until the young artist, unknown up to that moment, sang it once again. That was nearly five years ago — a long time in the life of any emerging star. In a sense, Turner has been in a continuous state of emergence since then, playing gigs that inevitably centered on the song, the days ticking by without any second album in sight.
There’s a reason for that, as Turner explained, now that his sophomore album, Your Man, has reached Platinum status and spawned two No. 1 singles, the title track and “Would You Go with Me,” — a feat that even “Long Black Train,” peaking at No. 13, failed to attain.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself as to how to outdo ‘Long Black Train,’” he said. “I worried about overcoming that phenomenon until I finally realized that I needed to do something completely different while still being Josh Turner. So I started thinking about what Eddy Arnold told me one time: He said I should take every opportunity I could to record a love song because nothing relates to people more than the relationship between a man and a woman.”
Turner resolved to follow his own instincts and, track by track, Your Man grew on a foundation built largely from songs about love. This may not be a revolutionary concept, but this focus liberated Turner to arrange his priorities appropriately. Though you can’t mistake that timbre and resonance, these tunes follow melodies that another singer might be able to handle, if maybe an octave higher. And for every descent into the depths of his range, as in the last note on “Way Down South,” there’s a passage that climbs nearly to the tenor heights, as on the chorus of “Would You Go with Me.” But that was only part of the picture. Being associated with one special song may unlock the door toward notoriety; the problem is that this door could slam shut and trap you in a smaller spotlight than you had anticipated. Turner and his producer, Frank Rogers (Brad Paisley), understood this perfectly as they mapped out their strategy for Your Man.
“We looked at the great moments on the first album and aimed at having 10 times as many great moments on the next one,” Turner explained. “We began with the fact that the Josh Turner sound is very traditional, with a lot of the characteristics of the music and many of the artists that have gone before me. It’s swampy, rustic and earthy and gritty to some extent. At the same time, we wanted to put a smooth texture over it, so that it feels fresh but yet you feel like you’ve been hearing these songs your whole life.”
The sound they created bears a label that Turner, without help from any publicist or scribe, came up with on his own. “I call it ‘South Carolina Low Country,’” he said, smiling. “I grew up there in a small farming community called Hannah, surrounded by fields, pine trees, dirt roads and rivers. I spent a lot of time outdoors, hunting and fishing or riding around on my four-wheeler. It was a Country lifestyle all the way.”
Vital to this world was the Missionary Baptist Church that stood about a mile down the road from Turner’s house. This was where he first heard music and where he cut his teeth as a singer. “The hymns we sang there are still very special to me,” he said. “Songs like ‘Just as I Am’ are relevant even today. And I used to sing ‘Without Him’ in a quartet called the Thankful Harps with some other guys my age. Some of those lyrics are extremely eloquent, even though they were written before this past century.”
The feel of those hymns, complemented by the Stanley Brothers and Osborne Brothers albums that he heard at his grandmother’s place, instilled the belief that feeling was what all the great singers had in common. Sound wasn’t an issue for Turner at that point; he was a baritone, which meant he looked to Randy Travis as a model on which to base his style. But that basso profundo hadn’t yet risen up and taken shape. In fact, it wouldn’t be an issue until 1996, with the onset of a medical setback that would in fact prove to be a great stroke of luck.
“I got a lesion on my right vocal cord,” he recalled. “I went to the Vanderbilt University clinic, and rather than do surgery, they put me on a year’s rest from singing. My coaches at Belmont University — Patricia Roberts for classical repertoire, and my commercial teacher Janet Kenyon — helped me work every day to get over this injury. After a while I started to notice that my sound was getting richer and fuller. My range was broadening. I kept chipping away until it was like, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve never hit that note before.’”
Though his transformation left Turner with a voice that almost any male singer would envy, he maintained his focus on the song through the hubbub that followed that adulation at the Opry. This is why Your Man doesn’t come across as a series of dive-bomb vocal gimmicks. Rather, it is a mature performance, from the nostalgic autobiography of “Way Down South,” the comfortable profession of faith that he shares with a boyhood hero, Ralph Stanley, on “Me and God,” the deadpan humor of “Baby’s Gone Home to Mama,” and of course those love songs that were essential to the mix from the start.
“Josh’s voice isn’t a gimmick,” said producer Frank Rogers. “It’s an amazing instrument. There’s no voice like it in Country Music or even music in general. More than that, it’s who he is, which is why I knew it had to be out front in the mix. This is probably the loudest I’ve ever turned up vocals on a record, but I wanted to make sure that you didn’t just hear it — you’d feel it too.”
“I’m already looking forward to the next record,” Turner added. “I’m keeping a file of all my ideas for songs. There are plenty of other songs already out there that mean something to me. Hopefully, I’ll have a lot of time to record them all. Sure, I’m blessed with having a great voice, but what’s the point of it unless I can use it to sing from what’s in my heart?”