NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Twang is Back

Josh Turner and Julie Roberts Lead New Artists in a Spirited Country Revival

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I’ve heard people speculate recently about why Josh Turner has been the only real breakthrough in country since Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Joe Nichols and Dierks Bentley. Turner’s debut CD Long Black Train recently was certified gold, which — these days — is rapid and real progress for a young country artist. And it’s increasingly rare as the sales gap widens between the few country superstars and everyone else.

I think it’s not too difficult to explain Turner’s audience appeal when you listen to his voice and especially when you consider his remarks in a CMT.com “20 Questions” reader interview this week. Asked why he’s pursuing a country career rather than a gospel or contemporary Christian path, the avowed Christian said:

Growing up, listening to country music as a young boy, that was something that I could relate to. And I found out really quick that country music, unlike a lot of other genres, allows you to sing about a lot of different things. Country music is very accepting of faith-based songs. You can also sing about love and relationships and where you work and just everyday life things. You know, real things. I think it speaks to the common man, and that’s the beauty of country music. It talks about the good and the bad and everything in between.

Very frank and plainspoken, Turner’s words remind listeners and readers about country music’s bedrock appeal and about why country listeners bond with country artists early on and stick with them for life.

I can feel that same spirit of dedication to the music as a cause in the songs of Julie Roberts, who — like Turner — is a young South Carolinian and another alum of Nashville’s Belmont University and its very productive music curriculum.

New young artists like Turner and Roberts may well be reshaping the face of country even as we watch and listen. Turner is in many ways a reminder of a young Randy Travis, just as Roberts is a reminder of a young Tanya Tucker. They are by no means soundalikes or copiers, but they maintain, respect and extend the traditions of such artists. And they project and continue, as well, the musical integrity of such performers.

Turner’s debut CD showcases his rumbling, rich baritone voice and his own emerging songwriting, with the title cut — inspired by Hank Williams — being his breakthrough.

Apart from his own compositions, Turner relies on such bedrock songwriters as Bobby Braddock, Pat McLaughlin, Harley Allen and Jamie O’Hara. On his own work, Turner is finding his way. “Backwoods Boy” is very much a musical page ripped out of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and is very much the stronger for having done so.

Based on what I’ve heard from her so far, Roberts is going to be a major breakthrough this year or I miss my bet.

Roberts’ music will roll out commercially later this year on Mercury Nashville, where she was working as receptionist even while her songs were making their way through the Nashville songwriter channels to eventually reach Universal Music Group Nashville executive Luke Lewis.

She very much vocally reminds the listener of the sultry young Tucker, and she also looks a bit like the young, blonde and very sexy Tanya in her prime. Which is not a bad thing at all.

“Break Down Here,” the first single from her debut album which is due early summer, will likely go to country radio Feb. 23. It’s quite a musical ride.

Roberts also puts me in mind of such great soulful country singers as Bobbie Gentry and Sugarland’s lead singer Jennifer Nettles. Like Roberts, Sugarland is now signed to Universal Nashville (via MCA Nashville) and will share a stage with her at the Universal show at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. With artists such as Turner, Roberts and others waiting in the wings, it really does look as if the country music industry is actually getting back to country music this year.

I don’t understand people who work in the country music industry who are ashamed of country music, who apologize for it and who try to present it as just another — sanitized — form of pop music. There’s one hell of a lot of people who genuinely love country music, and they don’t seek out country concerts, country radio and other country media in hopes that they’ll find some non-country music there. Now do they?

Watch these faces. Follow these voices. The twang is back. Long live the twang.