When Ronnie Van Zandt told producer Al Kooper to “turn it up” at the start of “Sweet Home Alabama,” it was a moment of sheer confidence. What Lynyrd Skynyrd was about to lay down was burning, powerful stuff, and Van Zandt knew the sound needed to be loud and proud.
It’s that same spirit that led Josh Thompson to title his first Show Dog-Universal Music project Turn It Up. It’s a modern, kickin’ country party album, with plenty of swagger, plenty of energy and plenty of blue-collar, hammer-swingin’, fist-pumpin’ attitude.
“It’s just really all-encompassing,” Thompson says of the Turn It Up banner. “Not only turn up this record, but turn up the way you live your life, turn up the crazy, turn up the feel-good, turn up the don’t-give-a-you-know-what.”
The album turns up all those dials, beginning with the opening “Down For A Get Down,” a clanging Friday-night anthem that rings true for small-town country boys and big-city prima donas. It winds through the searing title track, the Southern-rocker “You Wanted Me Gone” and the snarling working-class closer, “Hank Crankin’ People.” The album grinds out its hard-won spirit while still paying homage to the solid-country tradition from which Thompson’s music has grown. “Cold Beer With Your Name On It” has all the relationship drama of a classic George Jones & Tammy Wynette song, while “A Little Memory” possesses the adult self-reflection that made country such an important piece of heartland life.
Turn It Up is bound to invigorate Thompson’s fans. It’s already got Thompson and his road-warrior band kicking it into high gear on the road, where they frequently sell out frenzied clubs and theaters in their own headlining dates. Even if he finds himself opening arena or amphitheaters for someone else, the music guarantees that his set throws down the gauntlet.
“We still do a lot of opening shows, so we’ve gotta be in your face,” he concedes. “We have to whoop the next guy’s ass. It’s just the way that it is.”
Thompson’s live shows have earned him a solid fan base and gained him plenty of respect from those other acts that dared to follow him – including Brad Paisley, Eric Church, Justin Moore and Skynyrd, all of whom have taken Thompson on the road. Turn It Up backs up the ferocity of those shows, but also reignites the momentum he established in the recording part of his job.
Thompson’s debut album, Way Out Here, brought him Top 20 singles with the amped-up “Beer On The Table” and the prideful title track. Adding to the rebel brand of his musical predecessors, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr., Thompson’s album went Top 10 and made him an instant contender for stardom. He wrote and recorded a stellar, more personal follow-up project, but just as it was ready for the marketplace, the label went through a series of back-room changes that undercut his momentum. Both sides ultimately agreed it was best to shake hands and call it a day – Thompson took possession of the masters, and that project suddenly becomes a mysterious piece of his back story that is destined to emerge at some future point.
“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it,” he says. “I may split it up and put it out as EPs, I may put it out as one record, I don’t know. I’m still very proud of it, but it was time to move on and get a fresh start completely – fresh label, fresh songs, fresh producer, fresh everything.”
Fresh is a good word for it. Turn It Up connects with the rowdy tone of Way Out Here, but it subtly incorporates new sonic elements – pulsing electronic sounds, an old-school clavinet, drum-machine beats and a gang vocal or two. But not so many that they overwhelm the core of the songs.
“There’s a lot of overdub sounds, kind of track-y beats that do create an ambiance and flow through this record to give it some unity,” he allows. “But the most important part of music is the breath, you know – the air, the space. When that gets too muddied up, I start to have a problem with it. When it adds, then that’s great.”
One other notably fresh aspect to the album is Thompson’s voice. He pushes the upper limits of his register, nimbly projecting confidence even as he hits the most vulnerable parts of his audio persona.
“I always have written there, at the top of my range, but this is the first time that I’ve actually started recording there,” he notes. “I think it raises the energy. You can explode. You can make a song huge, a chorus huge, without having to direct a bunch of instruments to do different stuff. You’ve taken it to the next level vocally, so everything else just follows.”
Thompson’s vocals are the vehicle, but it’s his songwriting that propelled him into a country career. He grew up in Wisconsin, sliding into the construction business at the ripe old age of 12 and expecting that the rest of his life would be built around pouring concrete in driveways and office buildings. But his focus got derailed when he hit 21. He bought a guitar as an off-hours distraction, and it soon became a 24/7 obsession.
“I just wanted to learn some cover tunes and then six months after playing G, C and D, I wrote my first song,” he says. “That was it. Then I wrote another one and another one, and then I was running to my truck to write song ideas down, and it just kind of spiraled from there.”
Thompson moved to Nashville in January 2005, used his construction skills to pay the bills in the short-term, but applied the same labor-intensive work ethic he’d already built into his long-term dream. Within eight months, he had a publishing deal, and he added on a weekend touring schedule, honing his live sound and growing a repertoire.
One of his original songs, “Growing Up Is Getting Old,” became the title track for a Jason Michael Carroll album. He landed another, “Church Pew Or Bar Stool,” on Jason Aldean’s My Kinda Party, “Tough Goodbye” on Gary Allan’s Set You Free and contributed “A Man Don’t Have To Die” to Paisley’s This is Country Music.
After logging more than a decade in another vocation, Thompson has a roll-up-the-sleeves practicality about his musical occupation. The uncertainty of a record deal is a by-product of the trade. The unsettled, roller-coaster nature of touring is merely a series of different job sites. The emotional turmoil that plagues some of his peers is, to Thompson, just a cost of doing business.
The music industry “makes a lot of people bitter, makes a lot of people move, pisses a lot of people off,” he shrugs. “It can. But being in the construction industry, doing concrete everyday – whatever you do, you’re gonna hate it at some point. That saying, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?’ I always thought was way off. My take on it is, ‘If you do what you love, you’ll hate it a lot of days, but you’ll never want to do anything else.’ That’s this. I will never want to do anything else.”
For Turn it Up, Thompson found a group of people he really wanted to do music with – Show Dog-Universal Music is owned in part by Toby Keith, whose sly, for-the-people creations are similar in their party-first spirit. Producers Mark Wright (Brooks & Dunn, Gary Allan) and Cliff Audretch III (Randy Houser) were longtime supporters who’d been as crucial to Thompson’s uprising as some of the beer-swiggin’ diehards that populate the front rows at his shows.
“There’s a lot of power in friends,” Thompson reasons, noting that the VP of Promotion for Show Dog-Universal Music is also old friend and longtime supporter Tom Baldrica. “At the end of the day, if you’ve got believers behind you that have a great work ethic, that’s all you need.”
They put their noses to the grindstone on Turn It Up at Ben’s Place, a legendary Nashville studio owned by rocker Ben Folds. In previous incarnations – under the names Javelina, Music City Music Hall and RCA Studio A – it’s provided a setting for sessions by George Strait, Charley Pride, Billy Joel, Mark Chesnutt and Kacey Musgraves, just to mention a few.
“The new-technology studios are very compact,” Thompson says. “This place is all about air and volume and space. It’s just one big room, and all the musicians are sitting in a circle. They’re looking at each other, they’re feeding off each other, whereas a lot of other studios are all separated in different rooms with a microphone, where they can communicate but not look at each other. The same thing with me – I was in the same room with them. It just created an atmosphere, a really live kind of feel. It just made it perfect.”
Thompson wrote or co-wrote nine of the 10 songs on Turn It Up, and Ben’s Place brought them to life. Between the melodic “Firebird,” the burning “You Wanted Me Gone” and the jive “Hillbilly Limo,” the album fully embraces freedom – the freedom of the highway, of a weekend bender, of following an inner creative voice.
Josh Thompson has found his own freedom. He does what he does, just because it’s who he is. And Turn It Up is an album intended for people who want to amplify their individuality.
“It’s drive fast, turn it up loud and party wild, you know? You own your life, so let’s get after it.”