Most singers spend years foraging for a record deal. Not Josh Turner. The barrel-voiced newcomer got his berth on MCA Records within months of graduating from college. And it’s a song he wrote while in college, “Long Black Train,” that’s become his first hit. Happier still, he’s just learned that he’ll open for Brooks & Dunn on their 2004 tour, which will run February through April.
Turner has had his eye on a music career for a long time. “I grew up singing at a lot of different [events],” says the Hannah, S. C. native. “I went around singing with karaoke tapes and soundtracks. I was in a show down in Myrtle Beach called ‘High Steppin’ Country’ [and] did a lot of singing and dancing there. It pretty much prepared me for the stage. It helped me learn how to work a crowd and how to be comfortable on stage. It was a summer-long show, and I did it for two years.”
Initially, Turner attended Francis Marion University in Florence, S. C. “During that time,” he reports, “I started playing guitar and writing songs.” After two years at FMU, he transferred to Belmont University in Nashville, the alma mater of such country stars as Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley. “Probably the first time I recorded any original stuff was at the studio at Belmont,” he notes. “That really opened my eyes. I learned a lot from that.” In August 2001, he graduated from Belmont with a degree in commercial vocal performance.
Like so many others on Music Row, Turner benefited by making the right contacts. Katherine Blasingame, a fellow student in his entertainment career development class at Belmont, was interning at the time for music publisher Jody Williams. “Katherine had heard my demos and was impressed,” he says. “She took [them] to Jody. He was impressed and wanted to meet me. He ended up signing me to a production deal — and [then] signed me to a publishing deal in October 2001.” Williams also arranged for him to meet Mark Wright, then a senior vice president at MCA Records, who would eventually co-produce Turner’s debut album.
“Jody had known Mark Wright for a long time,” Turner continues. “He took me to MCA and played a couple of songs for Mark, who was sold on it. He wanted me to come back the very next day and play for Tony Brown [then president of MCA]. I played three songs for Tony, and he told Jody not to take me anywhere else until they had made a decision [about whether to sign me]. I came back from Christmas break that year [and found] they had decided to sign me to a demo deal. But soon after that, Tony left MCA. The moment he did that, Mark Wright and [then MCA chairman] Bruce Hinton upped [the offer] to a full-blown record deal.” Wright suggested bringing in Frank Rogers, who produces Brad Paisley and Darryl Worley, to serve as his co-producer. Turner agreed.
Among the songs on the demo tape Blasingame had taken to Williams was “Long Black Train,” a stark, sepulchral warning about temptation. Turner wrote it after listening to an entire Hank Williams box set. Dark though it was, MCA decided “Long Black Train” should be his first single and the title of his album. “Everybody was pretty much enthusiastic about the song,” Turner recalls. “It was really overwhelming for me to see how many people at the label really were behind it. And they’ve been behind it ever since.”
Besides “Train” and “Backwoods Boy,” both of which Turner penned by himself, he co-wrote a third song for the album, “Jacksonville,” with Pat McLaughlin. The remaining songs were written by Harley Allen, Don Sampson, Casey Beathard, Tony Martin, Tim Mensy, Monty Criswell, Jamie O’Hara, Mark Narmore, Roger Younger and Bobby Braddock.
Turner’s only cover song on Long Black Train is of Jim Croce’s 1972 pop hit, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” He says MCA’s Clay Bradley pitched him the song. “When he proposed it, we just thought he was crazy in the head. But Mark Wright said, ‘You know, it’s just crazy enough of an idea that it might work.’ He said, ‘Take it home and sing it some and just kind of live with it for a little while and see how it works. We’ll take it into the studio, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll throw it out.’ I pretty much made it my own.”
You can see how wide-ranging Turner’s influences are by checking out the more than 60 “heroes” he cites in his liner notes. Among them are Randy Travis, Vern Gosdin, Shenandoah, the Stanley Brothers, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, the Oak Ridge Boys, Rod Stewart, Jimmie Rodgers, Jerry Clower, Keith Whitley, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood, Shania Twain, Gillian Welch, the Fairfield Four, Babyface, Michael Bolton, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, Andrea Bocelli, Luciano Pavarotti and Billy Graham.
After the music video for “Long Black Train” began airing, the railroad-supported group Operation Lifesaver protested, asserting that the video’s depiction of troubled souls might induce such people to kill themselves by standing in front of trains. The protest puzzled Turner. “My first reaction was to laugh,” he says. “I felt like they were absurd. I thought they were ridiculous. I understood where they were coming from, but it was so irrelevant to the lyrics of the songs and the idea of the song — and to the video, for that matter. Neither the song nor the video is about a real train. They were putting it into a tangible aspect, and the song is not tangible. It’s metaphorical. It’s just using the imagery of a train to portray temptation.”
“Long Black Train” continues to chug up the chart and has now reached No. 25. On Jan. 9, he will play Gilley’s in Dallas.