Josh Turner stood out from the crowd of young male vocalists in the mid-2000s who hoped to inherit the spotlight from Garth Brooks and other country stars of the previous decade. It wasn't just Turner's rich bass-baritone voice that attracted attention, although that voice was distinctive enough in itself and earned Turner comparisons with another established star, Randy Travis. Turner's traditionalist outlook also set him apart from the crowd and gained him grassroots fan support. His breakthrough hit, "Long Black Train," was a straight gospel number, something that was still rare on country radio even as evangelical Christianity gained traction among the music's fan base. The song's arrangement evoked the 1950s style of one of the giants of the country genre, Johnny Cash. And Turner had the backcountry upbringing to go with his rootsy country style.
He was born on November 20, 1977, and grew up on his family's 80-acre plot of land in Hannah, South Carolina—not really a town, but simply a named rural area with no zip code. The young Turner grew up spending plenty of time out of doors. "I could still take you to my deer stand in the woods," he told Tonia Moxley of the Roanoke Times. "I can remember all the prayers and thoughts I had up there, whether I saw a deer or not. I could hear the train ten miles away." Turner's paternal grandmother was a country music fan who introduced him to traditional forms such as bluegrass, Southern gospel quartet music, and the classic honky-tonk music of Ernest Tubb.
Sang at Fundraiser
The family attended nearby Union Baptist Church, and it was a church event that gave Turner a taste of the performing life. When he was 14, Turner's mother signed up Josh and his brother and sister for a fundraiser called April Fools for Christ—all three had the choice of making fools of themselves performing in public or making a $25 contribution to the fund drive. Turner chose to sing the Randy Travis hit "Diggin' Up Bones." Nearly frozen with stage fright, he was amazed when his Travis-like voice stirred a huge round of applause. He began to think about making music his career, and his girlfriend's choir director suggested that he acquire a college education and pursue his dream at the same time by enrolling at Belmont University, a Christian institution located just a few blocks away from Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee.
Turner's singing career was almost derailed before it got started. After graduating from high school he took a job in an agricultural warehouse where dust and chemicals were environmental hazards. He started to notice pain in his throat, and it worsened to the point where he couldn't sing along with songs on the radio. Turner traveled to the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic in Nashville, where doctors diagnosed a lesion on one of his vocal cords. Surgery was a possibility, but eventually Turner was told to give up singing for a year instead. "God was testing me to have the faith that he would heal me," Turner told Moxley.
He moved to Nashville in 1998 and successfully completed a degree program at Belmont with a vocal music major. Classical singing lessons helped him prevent further damage to his voice, and it came back stronger than before. Turner met his wife, Jennifer, at Belmont, and she later became a keyboardist and backing vocalist in his band. Another important development during Turner's college years was his new focus on song-writing, which he had temporarily laid aside while adjusting to the shock of moving from the countryside to the bustling city of Nashville.
Already in a serious mood due to his vocal problems, Turner spent time one night at Belmont's library, listening to a box set of the gloomy music of classic country singer Hank Williams Sr. Walking home, he experienced a vision in which people stood beside a threatening black train running through a prairie. Back in his room Turner picked up his guitar, and "Long Black Train" materialized quickly.
Label Staff Split Over Song
A Belmont classmate introduced Turner to Nashville music publisher Jody Williams, who signed him to a songwriting contract. That led to an audition and recording contract at the MCA label. Turner's album debut, Long Black Train, featuring that song as its first single, was released in 2003. The song "Long Black Train" almost didn't make it onto the album; MCA executives were uncertain about its old-fashioned sound and upfront spirituality. But one staffer backed its inclusion, saying that it exemplified who Turner really was.
The decision turned out to be a good one. Audiences at the Grand Ole Opry radio program greeted the song enthusiastically, and it gained exposure from a controversy—the video for the song contained a scene in which a figure stood in the middle of train tracks, and some viewers came to the erroneous conclusion that the song had a suicidal theme. Turner dismissed the idea. "My initial reaction was to laugh," he told Jack Bernhardt of the Raleigh News & Observer. "I couldn't believe somebody was actually sending me a letter about this because they obviously hadn't really listened to the lyrics and message of the song." In the end the episode served as an example of the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity. As the controversy was discussed on radio and on the Internet, more and more listeners heard the song and liked it. The Long Black Train album rose to the number three spot on Billboard's country albums chart. Turner garnered Country Music Association award nominations for Song of the Year, and for the Horizon Award, given to newcomers on the scene.
A Deliberate Approach to Sophomore Release
Turner embarked on a heavy touring schedule, becoming better known to country audiences as an opening act for fellow traditionalist Brad Paisley, among other performers. But he didn't feel the need to capitalize on his success by rushing out a second album. He recorded several songs in 2004 but then paused to think about the album's direction and seek out additional cuts. Country veteran Eddy Arnold advised Turner to record some love songs, which hadn't figured prominently on his first release, and Turner took the advice to heart with "No Rush" and "Your Man." The video for the latter song featured Turner and his wife in a romantic hotel room scene. In the winter of 2005, "Your Man" brought Turner his first country number one single.
For the Record …
Born on November 20, 1977, in Hannah, SC; married; wife's name, Jennifer. Education: Belmont University, Nashville, TN, earned degree with vocal music major.
Worked in agricultural warehouse, late 1990s; active as songwriter in Nashville under contract to publisher Jody Williams, early 2000s; signed to MCA label; released debut album, Long Black Train, 2003; released Your Man, 2006.
Addresses: Management—Modern Management, 1625 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203. Website—Josh Turner Official Website: http://www.joshturner.com.
The new album, also called Your Man, was released in January of 2006. It rose to the top of Billboard's country albums chart and reached the number two spot on the general Billboard 200 pop album sales chart. Turner kept up his allegiance to country traditions by including guest appearances from veteran John Anderson (another influence on Turner) and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, the latter on the gospel "Me and God." As of 2006, Turner was among the hottest new stars in country music. He had already gained a solid fan base at the Opry and in traditional country venues like state fairs, and his prospects for long-term stardom looked promising. "There are tones of great artists out there making great music and not getting any airplay," he pointed out to Tom Alesia of the Wisconsin State Journal. "I'm in this for the long haul even if I'm not on the radio."
Long Black Train, MCA, 2003.
Your Man, MCA, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, April 9, 2004, p. 85; February 3, 2006, p. 71.
Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), May 20, 2005, p. GO13.
Houston Chronicle, February 5, 2006, p. 4.
News & Observer, October 15, 2004, p. WUP34.
Orlando Sentinel, January 27, 2006.
Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA), July 22, 2004, p. NRV6.
San Jose Mercury News, May 11, 2006.
Wisconsin State Journal, February 6, 2004, p. D1.
"Biography," Country Music Television, http://www.cmt.com (June 29, 2006).
Josh Turner Official Website, http://www.joshturner.com (June 29, 2006).
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