Josh Turner performing for Yahoo!Josh Turner emerged as one of country's hottest freshmen in the early 2000s with his breakout Long Black Train album, and no one has put the breaks on that locomotive since. He went on to beat the sophomore jinx… and also the junior jinx, and even the senior jinx, since his last album, 2010's Haywire, produced back-to-back No. 1 singles in "Why Don't We Just Dance" and "All Over Me." "With the Haywire record being my fourth record, I guess I've already graduated from high school and I'm about to go into my college freshman album here!" he figures.
That would be Punching Bag, his just-released fifth effort. And there is a way in which you could consider it more collegiate. "Obviously the Haywire record was just full of energy, regardless of what kind of songs they were," he says. But, having proven he could do an album of mostly up-tempo material, he had a different emphasis this time around. "With this Punching Bag record, I feel like a lot of people can really hear the maturity and confidence and experience that I've gained in the last 10 or 12 years of being in this business. Most of the songs were either written or co-written by myself, and the listener will be able to hear a lot of my heart and where I've been in the last couple of years. I feel like maturity and depth is the best way to sum up this record."
What he doesn't mention is that most of the material on this one is also pretty energetic, a la Haywire. Maturity and tempo, too? Maybe you can have it all.
Turner spent some time with Yahoo! Music recently, not only talking up his new album but bringing his band along to play acoustic versions of two songs from it, "Time is Love" and "Good Problem to Have." As a bonus, he also revived two favored oldies. One is "Your Man," the sensual smash that established his sex appeal on top of his image as a country gentleman, and "Why Don't We Just Dance," country radio's officially certified most-played song of 2010.
Turner is at that odd point in his career where, to some people, like most famously Scotty McCreery, he's an elder statesmen. For others of us, who've seen his career seem to fly by over the last decade, he's still a new kid on the block.
"I'm glad I'm not the only one that feels that way!" he says. "I've always just kind of considered myself a new artist. I feel like there's always things for me to learn and always room for improvement. But you're right, when you have somebody like Scotty come along and say that I influenced him or I was his hero, that definitely makes me feel old."
The Long Black Train album came out in late 2003, as did the long-running title single that put him on the map (even though, landmark that it was, the song finally fell just short of the top 10). But his very first single came out in 2002, so this year really marks his 10th anniversary as a major-label artist. Any plans to celebrate?
"It's funny, I've kind of already celebrated that 10-year anniversary," Turner says. "I dated it back retroactively to the day I signed my record deal, which was in November of 2001, because getting the record deal was a lifelong dream of mine. I still remember that day, and I still remember Bruce Hinton asking me to go and work on the lower 40 after I signed the dotted line. Obviously he was joking, but he really believed in me as an artist and as a person and what I was trying to say, and he went around the MCA Records building waving the Josh Turner flag. Looking back on those early years, I was thinking about that yesterday. Those were some of the best years of my life and some of the worst years of my life. Because I was enjoying getting my foot in the country music door and that first taste of commercial success. But at the same time I was learning how to be a businessman, and learning how to be the boss—which nobody prepared me for. There were a lot of things that I had to learn on my own, and I had to learn them the hard way. Those are some years I definitely don't want to revisit."
Now he's one of country's most reliable hitmakers. But he still has his down days, hard as it may be for some fans to believe that Turner leads anything other than a charmed life. The song "Punching Bag" came about as a result of his feeling particularly low one day, and Turner believed in its message enough to name the album after it.
"I call it the country 'Eye of the Tiger'," he says of the song, flashing his million-dollar grin. "When the consumer goes and buys my Punching Bag record, they're going to see in the front two pages of the liner notes that I've written a narrative in there, all about the experience of coming up with that song and the whole concept of centering the record around it. I talk about how most people see the glamorous side. They see me in hair and makeup and wardrobe; they see me in the bright lights on stage singing my songs. They see me when times are good. And the positive side is the part I want them to see. But I'm also the kind of person that is not one to deny the dark side of life. And obviously I don't dwell on that stuff, but I recognize its existence. I wanted to take that negativity and frustration and anger and self-pity and all that stuff I felt on that one particular day when I came home and I felt like my back was against the wall. I felt like life was beating me up; I felt like a punching bag. I wanted to take all of those emotions from that day and just pour it into this song. But I wanted to do it in such a way where it's almost like I'm giving my fan a pep talk: You've got to be tough enough to take these punches and keep moving forward and not let it get you down. I wanted to make it meaningful and powerful and fun all at the same time."
The first single off the new album, "Time is Love," is one of the few Turner didn't have a hand in co-writing. The demo he heard was very different from the finished result. "It's a lot more contemporary than what I'm known for. But that actually kind of appealed to me," he says. "I think the combination of my sound with this song and the way my voice just kind of laid in there was really magical. We made it more acoustic sounding, yet at the same time, the one musical idea I had for the song was to bring in the keyboard sound that was just laying down that groove throughout the song, that ties it all together and gives it that drive." Figuratively or literally: "It's a great driving song."
Josh TurnerBut the theme of "Time is Love" was even more paramount than the punchiness, as it often is for Turner. "Lyrically it had a message that I had been wanting to say for a long time: Time is very precious. There's only 24 hours in a day, and you're the one who gets to choose how to spend that time. Each and every minute is valuable, and it's all about priorities and spending time with the one you love or somebody that you care about. It's not just about the quality time that so many people talk about. It's about the times that aren't so quality, when you really learn about a person and figure out their ins and outs and how they tick and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I think that's really the key to love— just spending time with the person."
Every Turner album has a gospel song on it. This one has two—or three, depending on what your qualifications for a spiritual are. He's emphatic, though, in saying that there's nothing token about trying to work a Christian-message moment into each record.
"That's not so much a tradition," he affirms. "I don't really consider it that. You know, a lot of people say 'Well, we've gotta put the gospel song on there.' To me, that's almost religious in some aspect," he says—using "religious" in the negative sense. "I don't want it to ever become a ritual. I want it to be more along the lines of: My faith is a huge part of who I am and how I make my decisions throughout my daily life, whether it's my personal or professional life. So if I exclude songs like that, I feel like I'm doing my fans a disservice, because they're not getting all of who I am as an artist and as a person. So when I'm writing for a record, there's always these songs that kind of pop up that are spiritual or gospel or faith-based. And what's funny is, I never write any of those songs for record purposes. I come from a different place when I write them. And a lot of times it's just a matter of a 'This spiritual song that I wrote, this would be kind of cool doing it this kind of way, and I think the fans would enjoy this' kind of thing. So it's not like we have it mapped out where we say, 'Oh we have 11 songs and we have to have a ballad, we have to have an up-tempo, we have to have a gospel song.'
"For this record we have 'For the Love of God,' which I wrote by myself, where I just allowed my mind and my heart to hearken back to my upbringing of listening to traditional country music and bluegrass/gospel music. 'Pallbearer' was another song that really came from a non-commercial place in me. It was inspired by a set of actual events. And 'I Was There' is a song that I didn't even write that I feel is extremely powerful and poignant."
The fact that he did co-write most of the new material is largely due to the fact that he now has a dedicated writing spot on his Tennessee property.
"Shortly after we bought our house back in '08, I just really felt compelled to build a separate place for me to go and write and keep my music stuff. And so I built a log cabin on our property. I call it my writer's cottage. There's no TV, no phone, nothing in there to distract you. And it took longer and a lot more money than I had planned. But when I finished it in December of 2010, I was at a place where I was just about to explode creatively. I had all these ideas churning inside of me. And so come January 2011, I immediately got in there and just started pouring my heart out into these songs. I wrote 27 or 28 songs in this cottage that I built, and eight of those songs ended up on this record. So as stressful as it was, it was definitely worth it."
One of those was "Good Problem," a likely follow-up single, which Turner also performed for the Yahoo! Music cameras. "Loving someone is not always easy," he explains. "Sometimes it takes a little work. But in spite of that, it's a good problem to have. Even with getting married and how you lose your freedoms you have when you're a bachelor, you gain other freedoms that you didn't have before. Just little examples like that throughout the song really tie it together. Lyrically I'm really a fan of the song, because when Mark Narmore and I wrote it, it felt like we were sitting down playing somebody else's song that had been a hit back 20 years ago. That was a good sign to me."
Speaking of good problems to have: Turner and his wife had their third child in December 2010. Which, yes, can be a problem when the entire family is out with him for every date—a situation facilitated by the fact that his bride, Jennifer, is in his touring band. Does having three instead of two make a difference on the road?
"Our transition from none to one was by far the hardest," Turner says. "One to two was a piece of cake! And then (going from) two to three was pretty hard, again, because our third one is probably our most strong-willed child, and he is so driven. He is going to be be the child that we won't ever have to encourage him to follow his dream. It's gonna be just the opposite; we're gonna have to pull the reins back on him! But having three, obviously it's very busy, and it can be kind of crazy if they get to be too dramatic or too tired. But we've kind of been in that groove for a while, so we're going to do it for as long as we can. We realize that there will come a day where we're not able to travel as a family, and I don't want to think about that day just yet. But I realize that that day is probably coming. Right now, I'm just cherishing the time that we do have on the road."