“I kept telling them: this is going to ruin my chances of ever having a greatest hits album”. Josh Turner – five-time chart topper, 6.5 million record seller and 5.5 billion streamer – is referring to a tussle with his record label over their 2011 compilation album Icon: Josh Turner.
“Icon is not really a ‘greatest hits’ but a lot of people think it is. Icon is more of a collection of songs that define who the artist is as a creative person,” he tells me backstage before his second sold out night at London’s Union Chapel.
The record was part of a wider series for the great and good of the label roster, with luminaries such as George Strait, Reba McEntire and Tanya Tucker all receiving the Icon treatment. “I was not happy that we were releasing an Icon record on me. Lo and behold it goes Gold and so I thought, I can’t complain, I have a Gold record”.
12 years on from Icon, and Turner really is releasing his Greatest Hits album. Out on 8th September, it will feature 11 of his signature songs, including ‘Why Don’t We Just Dance’, ‘Firecracker’, ‘Your Man’ and of course his 2003 breakout song, ‘Long Black Train’.
Turner’s commitment to rolling with the punches seems to be a good indicator of his attitude to life. Speak your mind, take the hits, take the wins. In fact, many of the turning points in his life and career have had fatalistic roots that could easily have sprawled in another direction.
When he thought his parents wouldn’t be able to send him to Nashville to study at Belmont University he considered going into forestry, prompting his parents to come up with any way they could to get him to Tennessee.
When he suffered a vocal lesion in 1996 that could have ended his career before it had even begun, the subsequent rehabilitation and classical vocal training left him with his signature baritone voice.
“It was a gruelling process and it took years. But as I was coming out of that and my voice started to heal, I noticed it was not the voice I had before. It’s bigger, it’s deeper, it’s richer, I have more range, more versatility. I have a better tone. It was a blessing in disguise. I think God allowed me to go through that for a very specific reason.” He notes with pride that, to this day, he’s never had to cancel a show due to losing his voice.
Then there’s his aforementioned breakout hit, ‘Long Black Train’, which was almost snatched out from under him when Alan Jackson heard it and wanted to record it. Turner insisted that the song remained his. It’s true that he doesn’t pull any punches – who else, as an upstart, would have the gall to turn down an Alan Jackson cut?
It’s clear Turner holds on to things: the good, the bad and the interesting. He frequently pulls out quotes he’s collected to illustrate his point. On the subject of bad advice, he recalls that Johnny Cash once told Roy Orbison to lower his voice and ditch the shades. On good advice, he notes that Roger Miller said if you start running out of ideas you have to take a break and let the well fill back up. Eddy Arnold gave him advice on love songs; namely if you find a good one, cut it. Even if your enemy wrote it.
“That’s actually happened to me a time or two,” Turner laughs. He remains tight-lipped on the name of the enemy. “I can’t say who it is, but he’s had a lot of success. I don’t think it’s very deserving success, but that’s just my personal thought”.
Talking about how Nashville has changed over his 20-plus years in the business, he describes systemic and societal shifts in the music being made, paraphrasing an author whose name escapes him.
“From the dawn of country music, all the way up to a certain era, most every artist came from an agrarian background, whether it was working in the cotton or tobacco fields, coal mines or some blue collar background where you had to get your hands dirty in order to make a living”, he explains.
“I kind of feel like I’m on the tail end of that era because that’s the way I grew up. Then at some point it shifted from people having agrarian-type jobs to a suburban retail kind of life. Young people weren’t growing up on a farm or working manual labour jobs. They were working at the the mall or some fast-food restaurant. They were living in a suburb. They didn’t really have to get their hands dirty like their parents or grandparents did. You hear that in the songs.”
No matter his opinion on how the country music landscape has changed, Turner has no illusions about who’s really in control. “It’s all depending on the fans,” he says. “Fans are pretty forgiving and they like a lot of different kinds of stuff. Sometimes it surprises me what they like and what they don’t like”.
Of course, fans change, and so do tastes. It’s something he recognises in the recent resurgence in 90s country. “I think young people reach an age where they start getting interested in their parents,” he says. “People like me who grew up on 80s and 90s country music – that’s what my boys love because I play it all the time around them. And I’ve introduced them to all different kinds of music. But they know what I love and they’ve developed a love for that too. I think that’s a lot of where it comes from.”
The upcoming release of Greatest Hits marks not only the 20-year anniversary of ‘Long Black Train’, but also coincides with Turner's 20th wedding anniversary. Does he have any wisdom to share?
“It took a concerted effort for me to have a successful marriage and career at the same time. Not a lot of people can say that, they’ve had either or... I’ve put effort and energy into my career and my marriage and I haven’t neglected either one of those things. It’s made me a tired old man. But I don’t have any regrets”.
Josh Turner's Greatest Hits album will be released on 8th September 2023 via MCA Nashville / Snakefarm.