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Josh Turner finds success in the traditional

At a time when much of Nashville seems to be retreading classic rock and pop, Josh Turner has come up with quite a concept: traditional country music.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At a time when much of Nashville seems to be retreading classic rock and pop, Josh Turner has come up with quite a concept: traditional country music.

Turner has a fireball of a hit with “Firecracker,” a fun romp from his new album, “Everything is Fine.”

The song, with its rousing chorus of “She’s a firecracker, she’s the light of my life,” is his fifth to crack the Top 20. His breakthrough, “Long Black Train,” sounded like something Johnny Cash might have done. “Your Man” echoed Randy Travis. Bluegrass great Ralph Stanley joined him on “Me and God.”

Turner, 29, says he’s writing and singing about things he experienced back home in rural South Carolina.

“When it comes down to putting a song on the record I have to think, ‘Does this song really mean something to me? Is it going to get old to me? Is it going to mean something to me 20 years from now?”’ said Turner, whose earthy baritone is as commanding in speech as in song.

While he’s certainly not the only country singer with a traditional sound, he’s one of the few selling millions of records. His first two albums went platinum and double platinum, respectively, and his new one debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard top album’s chart, behind Carrie Underwood and the Eagles.

“I think he’s really good for the format,” remarked John Hart, president of Bullseye Marketing Research, which tracks radio airplay. “He’s a traditional country artist, and country listeners respond to him that way. His music appeals to the 35-plus age group, the country traditionalists, but he also has a good following on the younger side as well.”

‘I just look at this as another record’Last month Turner joined the Grand Ole Opry, becoming the historic country music program’s youngest member. With the recent release of “Everything is Fine,” he’s on the brink of moving into the upper echelon of country stars.

Turner says he tries not to think about that stuff.

“I just look at this as another record. I put everything I have into my records. Whether it sells five copies or five million copies, I can lay my head on my pillow and know I did my best job and not have any regrets.”

Turner started writing songs and playing guitar when he was 17. He moved to Nashville to study voice at Belmont University and met his wife, Jennifer, who sings and plays piano in his road band. They had their first child, a son, last year.

His 2003 debut on MCA Nashville, “Long Black Train,” drew praise for its gospel-inflected title track, which used a sleek black train as a metaphor for temptation. He sang it at his Grand Ole Opry debut — before anyone had even heard of the song or of Josh Turner — and brought the house down.

“I feel that God handed me that song because it came out so naturally and so easily,” he said. “I wrote three verses and the chorus in no time. I woke up the next morning and realized it wasn’t finished, so I wrote another verse and chorus and I thought ‘Wow, where did that come from?”’

Christian imagery is prevalent in Turner’s music. His new album, for example, includes a song he co-wrote called “The Way He Was Raised” that puts a contemporary spin on the story of Jesus.

“I guess I classify them as country gospel,” Turner said. “If they have any kind of background, they’re from what I grew up listening to in church, classic hymns and then beyond that Southern gospel quartet and bluegrass gospel like the Stanley Brothers.”

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He stretches his boundaries a little on the new disc, dueting with R&B singer Anthony Hamilton on “Nowhere Fast” and adding a Celtic touch with “The Longer the Waiting.”

But his core remains classic country, and for that Turner is thankful.

“Growing up, traditional country music was always where my heart was,” he said. “It was all about love and work and life and just the everyday stuff that people go through. It has always made me feel good — the melodies, the lyrics — so that’s what I’m trying to carry on.”