Josh Turner recorded dozens of his concerts earlier this year for his appealing new album, Live Across America, released through Cracker Barrel. Along with electric live versions of his hits, he takes an acoustic approach on three tracks: "Me and God," "So Not My Baby" and a subdued cover of Waylon Jennings' "America."
"It's not a patriotic record, but it's definitely an American record," Turner says. "Each one of these cities is very different. ... The energy that I get off these different crowds is very different. The venues are very different, but it's all under that American umbrella."
Live Across America reads almost like a road map because all 12 songs were recorded in separate cities. As a result, Turner believes that the all-inclusive "America," originally a Top 10 hit for Jennings in 1984, sums up the message of the project.
"I didn't want to choose your standard, straight-up patriotic song," he says. "I was looking for something else -- something that told the American story in a cool way that would still fit in with what we were doing. We created our own arrangement of this song, and obviously it's more broken-down than Waylon's version. I wanted it to be more intimate, and I wanted it to be as though I were telling a story. I was really pleased with the way it turned out."
Turner cites Johnny Cash's Live at San Quentin album from 1969 as a crucial piece of his own music collection. Turner said he found a vinyl edition at an antique store back home in South Carolina, and the dusty discovery made him want to delve more into Cash's catalog.
"It was cool because you got to hear a show that happened a long time ago," he says. "And you got to hear the banter between the songs and all the imperfections within the song and the energy from the crowd. You knew that they were inmates and that this was a special time for them. It was an experience to be able to sit and listen to something like that."
Turner released his debut single "She'll Go on You" in 2002. However it rose only to No. 46, lost amid a restructuring of his label's radio promotion department. "Long Black Train" followed and chugged to No. 13 in 2003. Still, Turner considers that track his signature song.
"It's not a commercial song," he acknowledges. "I was surprised when they even decided to release it. I thought they were crazy. But I really am proud of them for choosing that song because they were like, 'We need to choose the song that really sums up who Josh Turner is.' Still in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'This is not going to be good.'"
He continues, "Even when I wrote it, I didn't think anybody would want to hear it. I thought it was too old-fashioned and too old-timey. And it is. It's not a song that you automatically say, 'Oh, that's a radio-friendly song.' I was surprised by how well the song did. I was surprised by the impact that it had on people. The impact that it had on my career. ... I can't do a show and not sing it. The fans still love it, thank goodness."
Asked what he remembers about performing in the early days of his career, he quickly replies, "Too much!" After a few laughs, he adds, "I'm still trying to forget some of it. It was humbling times. We started out with a van and a trailer. We thought we were big stuff when we got a bus and were all in there together. But even then, it was pretty rough when I was starting out. Some nights, we would have to play an hour and a-half, and I only had one Top 30 hit. That's hard to really pack a punch when you have that kind of repertoire."
He continues, "But I've always been a fan of songs, and I've always been really in tune with the American public and with my fans and what they consider good material. So even if it was a cover song, I wasn't out there pretending to be some rock star. I wasn't trying to look cool. I was trying to entertain the fans. I was trying to speak to them. I was trying to leave them with some thought-provoking material and something to take their minds off their challenges and struggles."
Since those modest beginnings, Turner has notched four No. 1 hits: "Your Man," "Would You Go With Me," "Why Don't We Just Dance" and "All Over Me." All four are included on Live Across America. Crowd favorites like "Firecracker" and "Everything Is Fine" are on the album, too. But there's something less tangible spotlighted on the album -- and that's the feeling that comes with connecting with fans a country music concert.
"When I do a show, I try to be real," he says. "I try to be relatable to my fans. Even when I didn't have the string of hits, I was still trying to get in their head and get in their hearts with my music and my voice and my personality. I always try to let my fans know that I care about them and that I'm a real person, just like they are."