Take a guess at what constitutes the creative mindset of today's country music star as he or she prepares to record a new album. Is it a sense of restlessness to seek out new stylistic turf? Perhaps it leans more to assurance, especially if there is substantial commercial attention and momentum leading up the sessions.
For smoky voiced Josh Turner, who is finishing his first album since 2012's Punching Bag (which entered the Billboard Country Albums chart at No. 1 before crossing over to reach No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard 200), the feeling differs somewhat.
"The mindset for me is confusion," says Turner, who performs Friday night at the EKU Center in Richmond. "I had the hardest time really trying to figure out what direction I was going to go in. I still, to this day, don't know exactly what it is.
"I want to be creative. I want to be willing to think outside the box, like I always have been. But at the same time, I still want to make this record my brand of traditional country music. I want it to be a Josh Turner record."
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Turner admitted that settling on songs and directions for the record has been tough because the entire scope of country music has shifted since Punching Bag, with the rise of pop, rock and even hip-hop influences, as well as the ascension of celebrity acts like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.
"The whole landscape of country radio is changing, our market is changing and our business is changing," Turner says. "And people's tastes change, too. But at the core of that are people that still want to hear classic melodies they can sing along with and lyrics that mean something. That's always what has attracted me to music. I try to make sure those things are constants on my records. So far, I feel I've accomplished that. Outside of that, we're just trying to take the production aspect of the record to a different kind of place, but still maintain the integrity of what I consider Josh Turner music."
A preview single from the forthcoming album, Lay Low, has already been making the rounds on radio this fall. But even though the South Carolina-raised, gospel-bred singer has amassed an impressive parade of hits over the past decade (including All Over Me, Why Don't We Just Dance and Punching Bag's monster single Time is Love), the song fans always seem to associate with Turner is the one that ignited his career in 2003 — a staunchly traditional country yarn called Long Black Train.
"When the record company put Long Black Train out, I thought, 'Oh my God, this is career suicide. It's an old fashioned gospel song on commercial country radio. What are they thinking?'" Turner recalls. "So they put it out and you talk about stirring up a hornet's nest. People didn't know what to think. People thought I was just some gospel singer who had come over to country music. But that was the song that got me my publishing deal. It was the song that got me my record deal. It was the title track to my first album. It was my first hit. It was the first song I played on the Grand Ole Opry. It was my first platinum record. And aside from the commercial success, it touched and influenced so many people in such a positive way that it became my signature song. It doesn't matter how many hits I have. People still see me as the Long Black Train guy."
The years between Long Black Train and Lay Low are outlined in Turner's first book, Man Stuff: Thoughts on Faith, Family and Fatherhood, which was published in April.
"In the book, I explained how the Lord promised me this long career," Turner says. "But I wasn't given a playbook, so to speak. I didn't really know where the journey would take me because a career can take on many forms. So there's been a lot of good, bad and ugly along the way. But that's always been the exciting part. That's what gets me up in the morning every morning, because I never know what's going to happen."