How do you like to start your day? With a cup of coffee? Quiet time with the newspaper? A quick run, maybe? Josh Turner has you beat.
He recently experienced the best way to kick off a morning that a contemporary country star could ever hope for. Too bad it's not the kind of thrill he can enjoy daily.
In the early hours of June 20, Turner was informed that Punching Bag, his fifth album, debuted on the Billboard country albums chart at No. 1, ahead of big-gun acts Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson, Eric Church and Jason Aldean. But the good news didn't end there. Punching Bag also crossed over, entering the all-genre Billboard 200 at No. 4, placing him in the company of Usher, Adele, Rush and Neil Young.
"Getting that news was a pretty great way to greet the morning," said Turner, one of the eight featured country acts to perform at 98.1 The Bull's Red, White and Boom 2012 on Saturday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
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"I was very relaxed, very confident in making this record," said Turner, 34. "At this point in my career, everything is kind of established. We have the studio musicians that we have been using pretty much for every record. I've been using the same producer (Frank Rogers) for my whole career. And the songs came to us pretty easily. I wrote eight of the 11 that made it on the record.
"I put a lot of heart and soul, a lot of work into this record as a songwriter. But that's also the fun part of my job. The thing is, you never know where the songs are going to come from or how the album is going to turn out. But in the end, the songs tell the whole story. They determine the fate of your career."
If that's the case, Turner's career success was assured almost from the onset. A South Carolina native whose fascination with music began with singing in his church choir, Turner used the 2003 single Long Black Train as his calling card. Loaded with strong traditional imagery and lyricism that sounded custom-made for the bass and baritone depths of his singing, the song took Turner to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry nearly two years before radio embraced it.
Flash forward to 2010, and Turner could be found on a much larger stage: Rupp Arena, where he shared a concert bill with Alan Jackson. His album Haywire further raised the visibility of his vocal and songwriting abilities.
"The first music I heard was in church, obviously. Beyond that, my daddy's mom had a huge record collection filled with Southern gospel, bluegrass and traditional country. That really laid the foundation for me. The music was so earthy. Then when I got into my teens, I started listening to county radio. That was the first time I heard people like Randy Travis sing. From that point on, I was hooked.
"But I was also working on a farm with a lot of blacks and Mexicans, and loved all the soul and mariachi songs they would sing. I would study all of that music. I think you can hear the R&B and soul influences throughout my records. Haven't done any mariachi songs yet, but I try to put as many of these different influences as I can into what I do."
Punching Bag's lead single, the domestically themed Time Is Love, one of the album's three non-original songs, is set to take its place alongside previous Turner hits Why Don't We Just Dance, Would You Go With Me and Your Man. But the album's most arresting work — and perhaps its most unlikely candidate for a future single — is the sobering Pallbearer, a tune that uses the death of a distant relative as the inspiration for a saga of collapsing romance.
"A story started unfolding in my mind about this guy who lost his true love and how he felt that dealing with what happened was kind of like carrying the dead. It was a huge burden to bear. I got to thinking there is nothing more lonesome on this earth than being a pallbearer. So I used that as a metaphor in the way I did. The story just told itself from there."
Adding to the tune's stark emotive terrain are the contributions of two significant country/Americana traditionalists: the vocals of Iris DeMent and the mandolin leads and solos of Marty Stuart.
"Iris is different in that she's not in the country mainstream, so a lot of my fans probably won't know who she is," Turner said. "But she has this great lonesome, twangy kind of sound that blended in perfectly. And Marty just has a way of taking the mandolin back to pre-bluegrass times to that Italian style of playing — a style with lots of single notes that lets the mandolin really ring out. It's very ethereal and thought-provoking and became one of the things that made this record sound really cool."