Josh Turner: A Deep Dive

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I still remember the first time I heard Josh Turner sing. It was in late 2003, and CMT.com had just posted Turner’s debut album Long Black Train for listeners to preview. After ignoring the album for a few days, I checked out the album out of sheer boredom…and Turner’s deep baritone and smooth delivery stopped me in my tracks. The voice, the production, the topics, and even the black-and-white album cover photo made for an easy comparison:  At long last, I thought, a true heir to Randy Travis has been found.

Fast forward to 2016…and while Travis awaits his official induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Turner’s career is nothing more than a footnote in the history of the genre. What the heck happened here? This question deserves…a deep dive!

In examining Turner’s discography up to this point, several interesting possibilities emerge as to why Turner had not enjoyed consistent success:

  • The “songwriter effect.” While going back and listening through Turner’s discography, one fact becomes painfully clear: Turner is a very clumsy songwriter, prone to poor word choices and dragging out words to fill empty space. His voice can sometimes overcome these issues (the title tracks for Long Black Train and Everything Is Fine, for example), but not often. Why does the quality of Turner’s songwriting matter? For one thing, his songs have made up an increasing percentage of his albums over time:
    Album Writing Credits
    Long Black Train 3 songs
    Your Man 5
    Everything Is Fine 7
    Haywire 5
    Punching Bag 8

    Additionally, if we look at Turner’s singles, we find that songs that he has a hand in writing tend to perform noticeably worse than songs he doesn’t:

    Songs Average Billboard Airplay Peak Top 5s No. 1s
    Written/co-written by Turner (5) 18.6 1 0
    Not Written/co-written by Turner (10) 14.1 5 4

    Basically, aside from 2007’s “Firecracker” (a #2 hit written by Turner and two others), Turner’s chart history is underwhelming. (It should be noted, however, that the #13 peak of Long Black Train‘s title track belies its impact in the gospel genre.)

  • A poor single release strategy. Conventional wisdom in the music dictates that:
    • Thou shalt release four singles from an album, and
    • Thou shalt not wait too long in between single releases.

    In theory, these rules of thumb make sense. You want multiple singles to maximize the visibility of your albums (and thus recoup your investment), but too many singles lead to diminishing returns, and fans eventually get tired of the old material and want something new. You also don’t want to be left off of the radio for too long, as listeners will forget about a silent artist surprisingly fast.

    For some reason, however, MCA Nashville has flipped a long, stiff middle finger to these ideas when it comes to Josh Turner:

    • They have never released more than three singles off of any of Turner’s albums. (In fact, Punching Bag only had two!)
    • They have waited an absurdly long time between single releases on several occasions:
      • Over a year passed between “What It Ain’t” (released April 2004) and “Your Man” (August 2005). Given that “What It Ain’t” only peaked at #31, most listeners likely never heard it, and thus their gap effectively stretched back to “Long Black Train” (which peaked in February of 2004)!
      • Roughly a year passed between “Everything Is Fine” (August 2008) and “Why Don’t We Just Dance” (August 2009). This is worse than the prior gap, because not only did “Everything Is Fine” only made it to #20, but “Another Try” had only made it to #15 before that. A casual country may have not heard Turner on the radio since late 2007! Put another way: I had more jobs between December 2007 and August 2009 than Turner had hit singles.

    Over time, this issue has gotten worse, as Turner’s output slowed to a crawl after 2010. The gaps between his last five singles were fifteen, nine, twenty-three, and twenty months! When “Lay Low” was released back in 2014, I didn’t think he meant that literally.

    So what happened in the 2010s? I’m glad you asked…

  • The genre shifted underneath Turner’s feet. In 2012, Florida-Georgia Line released “Cruise,” a party jam that went on to become the biggest hit in country music history. The track signaled the rise of Bro-Country, in which young men half-sang, half-rapped about drinking, partying, and hooking up with hotties in the back of a pickup truck at midnight in the middle of a field. Lyrics were shallow, women were objectified (and summarily booted off the radio), and fiddles and steel guitars were exchanged for screaming guitars and drum machines.Bro-Country, as well as the Metropolitan R&B craze that followed, hit country music like a tidal wave, and as new artists like FGL and Sam Hunt rode the wave to fame and fortune, singers that predated the craze were faced with a gut-wrenching decision: Conform or die. Most singers swallowed their pride and chose the former. Josh Turner did not.

    In a way, Turner is the embodiment of an ‘anti-bro:’ A devout family man whose songs feature traditional production, classical country themes, and even religious imagery (who else releases a song called “Me and God” to country radio?). He wasn’t a huge fan of the country climate change, and he said as much to The Boot:

    “I think there’s too much gratuitous [music] out there right now. That’s what gets old to me…I’ve always tried to make my music positive, but life is not always positive, so I’ve always just tried to write and record songs about real life. There’s some things I refuse to sing about…
    Unfortunately, choosing “to write and record songs about real life” came with a cost: In 2012, while “Cruise” was dominating the charts, Turner released “Find Me A Baby,” in which the narrator sings about wanting to find a good woman, get married, and have a bunch of kids. The song didn’t even crack the Top 40…and MCA decided to stick Josh in mothballs. Save for a pair of songs off of a yet-to-be-released album (“Lay Low” peaked at #25 in 2014, “Hometown Girl” currently sits outside the Top 30), Turner completely disappeared from the scene.
    As Turner explained in the Boot article reference above, the hiatus wasn’t his idea:
    “I’ve been working on this [new] record for about 60 years now, it seems like anyway…Nobody is more ready to get it out there than me.”
    While this statement begs the question, “Why did MCA stick Turner on the shelf?” the answer is irrelevant. The fact remains that the decision cost Turner several prime years of his career, doing irreparable damage to his legacy.
So what does the future hold for Josh Turner? Believe it or not, there is cause for optimism: Country music is drifting back to its traditional roots, and with an album set for release (eventually), Turner is well-positioned to take advantage of the shift. Nearly fifteen years into what appeared to be a promising career, however, the damage has already been done. While he has certainly done some amazing things in his career and may do even more in the future, the issues discussed above will always make me wonder what might have been.
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