Song Review: Josh Turner, “All About You”

Hey look, a Josh Turner sighting! But if this is the kind of material he’s come back to release, I’d have preferred that he stay missing.

Josh Turner’s first decade in country music was relatively successful, as he managed to achieve commercial success (four No. 1 hits and another two No. 2 hits) while maintaining a reputation as a staunch country traditionalist. Decade number two, however, has not been as kind: After his 2014 single “Lay Low” (which I thought was excellent, for what’s is worth) stalled at #25, Turner disappeared from the scene completely for nearly two years, prompting a lot of speculation (including from yours truly) as to why he had gone (or been forced) into hiding. When he re-emerged in 2016 with “Hometown Girl,” his sound was a bit more modern and trendy than I expected, and while the song eventually became peaked at #2 on Billboard’s airplay chart, it took almost an entire year to get there (and to add insult to injury, it was unceremoniously blocked from the top by Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” and had to settle for a Mediabase #1). “All About You” is the third single off of Turner’s long-awaited album Deep South, and it features Turner becoming even more modern and trendy with his sound, with disastrous results.

The irony of Turner’s production update is that he only made it into the Bro-Country era, which is already starting to feel dated. The song opens with a prominent drum machine and a banjo that, unlike the one from High Valley’s “She’s With Me,” just screams “token country instrument.” A dobro jumps in to assist the banjo in between verses, and some real drums and electric guitars eventually join the mix, but the whole mix just feels it trying too hard to come across as down-home and “countrified,” and winds up feeling choppy and inauthentic. (To be honest, the dobro makes the track feel more sleazy than anything else.) Turner’s sound has always been grounded in traditional instrumentation (fiddle, steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and even some mandolin, none of which are present here), and this sort of modern production does not suit or flatter him at all. Frankly, it sounds more like a Florida-Georgia Line reject that Turner’s label forced him to record.

Vocally, “All About You” is about as poor a match for Turner’s voice as you could possibly get. His calling card has always been his rich, deep baritone, and he can comfortably reach depths that few other artists would even dare to attempt. This song, on the other hand, traps Turner exclusively in the upper portion of his range (save for a deep dive on the outro), making him sound almost generic as a result. While Turner’s a good-enough singer to make chicken salad out of this chicken you-know-what (his flow is pretty good, and he still comes across as believable in the narrator’s role), the song just isn’t compelling or interesting, and without his voice’s most potent quality, Turner is powerless to do anything about it.

I’ve never considered Turner to be much of a songwriter, but even he could have done a better job with the lyrics than what we ended up with:

I don’t care what we do, what we don’t girl
I’m just freaking digging living in your world
You got the hot, I gotta get next to
Where we go, where we get, how we get down
Don’t matter girl, as long as we’re getting around
Just messing around, baby ooh, baby ooh

While the track avoids the outright misogyny of most Bro-Country tracks and tries to empower the woman is references by saying “it’s all about you,” the sentiment rings a bit hollow next to lyrics like those posted above. Additionally, the phrasing in this song is beyond clumsy (see the bizarre “got the hot” line above), and the use of terms like “hillbilly” and “that there boy” come across as a desperate attempt to boost the singer’s country credentials by making them sounds backwoods and folksy. Oh, and for good measure they threw in a reference to writing an ooh-ooh-ooh “song,” which Thomas Rhett already did (and did a lot better). Seriously, MCA Nashville waited five years in between Turner’s album releases and couldn’t find songs any better than this?

Overall, “All About You” is a Josh Turner song that doesn’t sound anything like Josh Turner. It comes across as a poorly-conceived, half-baked attempt by Turner’s label to “update” his sound and image to fit a trend that’s already on its way out, and the fact that the current trend towards a more-traditional country sound would have fit Turner’s classic style perfectly makes it all the more frustrating when we end up getting garbage like this instead.

Josh Turner deserves better than this.

Rating: 3/10. Stay away from this one.

Post-Thanksgiving Music Recommendations

My current policy on music reviews is that I only review country singles that are “new”—that is, they have either just been announced and/or released as single, or have recently debuted on the Mediabase charts. However, that means that anything that doesn’t fit this criteria (or fit this criteria two months ago, but not since the blog started) gets ignored, so I decided to highlight some of the best stuff.

Chris Young feat. Vince Gill, “Sober Saturday Night”: For an album that was criticized as sterile and generic when it came out, I’m Comin’ Over has done pretty well for itself, with its first two single becoming No. 1 hits. Single #3 is “Sober Saturday Night,” and honestly, it might be the best one yet. It’s a nice twist on the “drinking to forget” trope commonly found in country music, and Young’s emotive performance meshes perfectly with the melancholy tone of the music. My only complaint: Gill is criminally underused on this track. Can a song really “feature” an artist if they’re relegated to singing barely-noticeable harmony vocals? They could have at least let Gill throw in a cool guitar solo or something…

Easton Corbin, “Are You With Me”: This song has about as unique a history as you’ll ever find: Originally an album cut on Corbin’s 2012 disc All Over The Road, the song became a surprise worldwide smash due via a remix by Belgian DJ Lost Frequencies, moving Corbin’s team to include the original song on their 2014 album About To Get Real, and even release a slightly-edited version as a single earlier this year. Neither the single nor the remix made much of a splash of the US charts, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a great song featuring minimal-but-spot-on production and Corbin’s George-Strait-like delivery.

Chris Jansen, “Holdin’ Her”: Is this really the same guy who wrote “Truck Yeah” and took “Buy Me A Boat” to No. 1? In a sudden pivot towards more-traditional country, Jansen released an autobiographical ode to the special women in his life. The production is classic country, the delivery is solid, and the sentiment will bring a tear to your eye. This may be the best song on the radio right now.

Josh Turner, “Lay Low”: No, Josh will never be the next Randy Travis, but he’s still a darn good singer with some decent material in his catalog. “Lay Low” was supposed to be the leadoff single to his yet-to-be-released new album, but the song flopped on radio and Turner was subsequently put in mothballs for almost two years. It’s a crying shame, given the song’s stellar instrumentation and calm, relaxing mood. Turner has one of the best voices on country radio, and this song is him at his best.

Brett Young, “Sleep Without You”: I haven’t been impressed with the majority of new faces in the genre, but I’m cautiously optimistic about Brett Young after hearing “Sleep Without You.” The production is more contemporary than the other songs on this list, but it has a nice acoustic foundation and mixes together surprisingly well. Similarly, Young’s delivery is a notch below the other singers on this list, but he stays within his vocal range and does a good job of making the song sound believable. Finally, while there’s some underlying insecurity in the narrator’s insistence that he’s cool with his girl going out without him, it’s nice change of pace from the “girl as the shiny object in my truck” songs that permeated the Bro-Country era. The song is on track to top the country charts soon, and I’m genuinely curious to see how high Young’s ceiling is.

Bonus Rec: Levar Allen, “Take On The World”: Take a minute to appreciate what Allen’s done here: He’s remixed themes from Super Mario World into a solid backing track, written a clever Mario-themed rap to throw on top of his mix, delivered a stellar vocal performance with excellent tone and flow, and then threw in a custom guitar solo to top it off. This is some very impressive work, and it’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.

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.