Building Inspiration: A Q&A With Josh Turner
American Songwriter recently sat down with country star Josh Turner at his new songwriting cabin in College Grove, Tennessee to get the lowdown on his new album, Punching Bag. The moving first single, “Time Is Love,” continues to persevere in its steady chart climb. Released in June on MCA Records Nashville, the album is shaped by a first-rate mix of songs that Turner wrote, co-wrote and selected from outside writers. We chatted about song inspiration, the work/family balance, the recording process and what it takes to be a tornado of testosterone with a bone-shaking baritone.
What’s your process of preparing to write and then writing songs for a new album? How about outside material and balancing that with your own? What’s the song collection and synthesis process look like for you?
To fully understand it you’d have to walk through it with me personally as I’m going through it. Obviously that’s not possible. The best way I can describe it for this album in particular is that I spent two years building this cottage. I faced a lot of challenges, a lot of obstacles in order to get this built. I knew why I was building it. I was building it for a purpose. I was building it to write songs in. I was building it to inspire myself, and my co-writers, and anybody that walks in here. I wanted it to be a place of inspiration, a place where ideas can flourish and creativity can flourish.
Throughout those two years of the building process I wasn’t able to come in here and write songs. So when they handed me the key in December 2010; come January 2011 I was about to bust creatively. I just had so many things on my heart and so many things that I wanted to say and that I wanted to write about. The first song I wrote in here was called “Moses.” It was about my dog and losing him, just the emotions and the feelings I’ve had along with that. From there those creative juices just really started flowing. Like I said I had a lot of ideas kind of stored away. I brought my writers in, and I was a little nervous about bringing the writers in. I was thinking it’s going to be a little bit of a drive for them, and it’s gonna be away from everything. It was a bit of a drive, but they loved it. I didn’t have any reason to be nervous. Each and every one of them that has come out here said that they’d rather write here than on the road. So that made me feel good, that my writers didn’t mind coming out here and spending the day with me and writing songs.
It’s been fun for me to be able to sit in here with no TV, no phone ringing off the hook, no distractions. I can come in here, and I can write, and I can think without losing my train of thought. My writers and I can really kind of get down to the core and the heart of each song. That’s really what happened. From the time I started writing in here to present day I think I wrote 27 or 28 songs; eight of those songs ended up on this record. Eight out of the 11 on the record were either written or co-written by me, and they were written right here in this cottage. It was pretty significant for me when I came home from the studio that particular day, and I realized these are the songs that are gonna be on the record. That, for me, was fulfilling. It was significant. It was symbolic of everything that I had gone through to get this place built, the purpose that I had built it for, and knowing that it was not going to go to waste. John Anderson sat right there across the table from me when we were writing, and he said, “It’s going to be a great day when the songs that you write in here end up paying for this place.” I said, “I’ll call you when that day comes. We’ll have a party.”
Was this completely your idea or were there some other artists who you have seen do something like this that inspired you to create this place?
It was completely my idea. I remember cutting grass over here before this place was built, and I didn’t have a place to write in my house. I had already committed myself to being a songwriter. There had been times in years past when I considered giving up songwriting, because it’s tough. It’s hard to do. I’ve committed myself to nurturing myself as a songwriter and continuing that. So, in order to do that, for me anyway, I have to have a place that’s peaceful, and quiet, and away from everything. I’ve tried to write on the road. I’ve tried to write in town. I’ve tried to write, you know, in different places. If there are distractions, if it doesn’t have the warmth and the inspiration surrounding me, it makes it even harder. And like I said, songwriting is hard as it is, but if you get in a place that’s not conducive to being creative, it makes it that much harder. I knew that if I was going to really do this and really nurture and feed that songwriting side of me, then I was going to have to have a place to do it. I didn’t want to do it half way. I wanted to do it right from start to finish, and do it right the first time. I didn’t want to have any regrets. And, you know, it cost me a lot more and took a lot more time than I anticipated, but it was all worth it.
Looking at the liner notes and knowing your past albums, I know there are always a few songs on there that are slanted to get radio airplay. But reading about and hearing “Pallbearer” — that sounds like one of the most unique songs on this album?
Yeah. I’ve had a lot of people here just recently that have been asking me about that song, and comment about that song, just about how different it is and how haunting it is. “Pallbearer,” for me, is special, because it comes from a very real and honest place. I wrote that song with no commercial intention whatsoever. Radio, records, none of that came into my mind when I was writing that song. You can read the story on there about how this distant relative of mine passed away. Just his story. I wasn’t able to make it home for his funeral. My parents were able to go. They sent me a program bulletin from the funeral service, and when I got it I saw that my daddy had been asked to be a pallbearer in the funeral. When I saw his name in the list of pallbearers, and when I got to reading that word, it’s just a word that you hear all the time growing up, but I’d never really put a whole lot of thought into it. I started asking myself, “What does it really mean to be a pallbearer?” I got to thinking about the emotions of being a pallbearer. I’ve been a pallbearer a couple times, and it’s one of the most lonesome things you can do. Especially if you know the person that you’re carrying. So I didn’t write the song specifically about Mr. James, but it was inspired by this death and his life. When I realized that pallbearer could be a cool song title, I started asking myself “What is it about this title?” I realized that it was just one of the most lonesome things you can do. And so I started telling this story about how this guy had been in love with this woman and she just turned her back on him, and what he was going through and the emotions that he was feeling was as if he were a pallbearer, and he’s having to bear the loss of this woman and the hardship and the pain that she had caused.
Country music has a lot of pop and rock in it right now. I’ve been wondering, because you have such a traditional bent, what that means for you in terms of finding, say, the last three songs on this album? Are people still writing those kinds of songs now and you have a lot to choose from, or have people stopped writing the songs because there aren’t as many artists doing them?
It really varies from record to record. There have been times where I’ve had to just narrow it down to 11 or 12 songs when I really had 20 songs that were really good. A lot of them were outside songs. A lot of times, you know, it’s my songs that I have to reject. There’s one song in particular of mine that I had to reject for this record. I still haven’t let it go, you know. It might end up on a future record but, for me, I just have to choose the best songs no matter what, whether I wrote it or not. As far as the song writing community right now, I can totally see and hear what you’re referring to. That can be frustrating for me, because I spend so much time listening to outside material. And when the percentage of great songs goes way down it gets even more frustrating, because you feel like you’re wasting your time listening to that stuff. You start understanding why you hear stories of certain artists saying, “Just pitch me your best three songs.” It’s like they’re trying to save time.
I’m not that kind of artists. You know, if they have 20 songs that they feel like could be songs for me, I want to hear all 20. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to put a limit on it. You never know, that last song could be the biggest hit of my career, you just never know. And I try to leave no stone unturned. But for this recording in particular, I had plenty of time to write. I had plenty of time to create, and these songs of mine just kind of rose to the top. As far as the three outside songs, “Time is Love” is a song that I probably wouldn’t have written myself. It’s more contemporary than anything I’ve really done. You know, melodically it’s something that I probably wouldn’t have taken it to. “Deeper Than My Love” is a Chris Stapleton song. I have a history of Chris Stapleton songs in my career. That was one of those songs that I felt would really showcase my voice in a great way. And then “I Was There” is probably one of the most moving songs I’ve heard in a while. So those three especially were really hard to turn my back on. Then, like I say, the rest of them had special meaning for me, because I wrote them, and they were new. Everybody in my camp loved ‘em.
Stylistically, you’re a country singer, and you can tell that when you talk. But, at the same time, you’ve been able to run the gamut. You do so many styles and do them well. Do you feel that need to stretch out stylistically sometimes?
That’s a hard thing for me to answer, because it’s hard for me to describe. I’ve always had a hard time describing myself to other people, because I’ve always been very observant. I’ve always been very adaptable. I’ve always been one that can adjust to a lot of different situations. But at the same time, on the other side of the coin, I’m very bold. I’m very convicted. I’m not going to change who I am, regardless of the circumstances. It’s hard, because, just like Kris Kristofferson wrote, “I’m a walking contradiction.” You know, in that sense? Because, with my music, when you hear a Josh Turner record, you’re gonna hear songs that really show off my voice, that really comes from my heart, that are things that I want to say. But at the same time you’re going to hear songs like “The Longer The Waiting” which sounds like an Irish folk tune, or “Loving You On My Mind” which very easily could have been a Marvin Gaye song. It’s odd, because I’m a fan of a lot of different kinds of music. I’m always looking for something different. Even on “For The Love Of God’, which is a staunchly bluegrass, gospel song, I couldn’t rest with the possibility of it just being your normal everyday average bluegrass song. I wanted something to kind of give it some kind of color, some kind of different flavor.
I had just heard a record by Ricky Skaggs called Solo. It was all the song that his daddy loved growing up. Everything on the record was either played or sung by Ricky Skaggs. That alone makes the record special, but the songs that he chose and the instrumentation and arrangement, it just sounded so old timey and traditional. It just had so much heart and soul to it. It became one of my favorite records from the very first listen. Ricky, they don’t call him Picky Rick for no reason, because he can play anything that’s got strings on it. I got reading through the liner notes. Some of the instruments he played on that record, I was like, “I’ve never even heard of that instrument!” But he’s on there playing them, and playing them well. So, I got to thinking about that. I thought, “Man, it’d be great if I could get Ricky to come in and play some of those funky instruments.” He didn’t go all out with trying to play everything that he had. He listened to the song and decided what he felt like would be the best fit for the song. And so he came in. He played two different kinds of mandolins, he sang a harmony part on the verses, and then he played a cello banjo. That I thought was one of the coolest things I’d ever experienced. I’d heard it on the solo record, but hearing a Cello Banjo on a song that I wrote. It was just crazy. Especially being in the studio with Ricky when he was tuning it and warming up on it, just listening to the instrument by itself. I was just sitting there. I told Ricky, “Man, that is the instrument version of my voice.” It’s low. It’s gritty. It’s got soul to it. It’s different. I just wanted to go and kiss that instrument. It’s so unique and so different. You get to hear that on this song. It took it from being your normal bluegrass song to being something just really funky.
Did you and producer Frank Rogers set out with any new goals or do anything differently approaching the production side of this album?
The first big difference with this record was that we did all of the tracking over at Ocean Way. That was the first time that we had really switched studios. Prior to this record we had done everything at Sound Kitchen in Cool Springs. But Sound Kitchen has gotten really weird with new management, and everything over there, and pricing and everything. So we decided to go to Ocean Way. We always try to look for a big room that can capture a great drum sound. It was convenient going there. The musicians felt comfortable there; I felt comfortable there. We did all the tracking there. I did all of the singing for this record at Frank’s home studio, which was also a first. That felt good to me too, and it saved us a lot of money doing it that way.
As far as taking it from a work tape or a demo form, Frank and I always, traditionally, have a preproduction meeting. We’ll go in and talk about the songs and what instruments in particular we may want on one song or the other. We always try to make sure that we’re prepared, you know, if there’s something that we need to have in place prior to tracking day, or if it’s something that needs to be done after tracking day. We always try to plan for things that we can plan for. Some things you can’t plan for. We always have preproduction meeting before we go in for a session. Then, when we get in there, these musicians are so good that they listen to a song one time. They’ve got their chart and they go out there and just recreate it. It’s amazing to watch. Their musicianship is just unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Watching Shannon Forrest play drums on “Punching Bag” was one of the most phenomenal things I’ve ever watched. It was superhuman, and I’ve told everyone about it since that day. He was in full view of me from the vocal booth, and watching him, my brain about popped. I couldn’t even comprehend what he was doing. I mean I’ve seen people play drums before, but he wasn’t playing drums; he was tearing the drums up. He was playing different rhythms within what he was doing. Listening to it is one thing, but watching it was just a whole other experience. I gained a lot of respect for him that day. I knew he was a good drummer, because I’ve used him on just about all of my records, but that particular song just brought out the supernatural side of him. It was pretty incredible.
Then obviously you’ve got Bryan Sutton, and Aubrey Haynie and Gordon Mote. I mean, Gordon’s blind. He doesn’t have a chart. He hears it, and he’s fixing other people’s charts. It’s unreal. Then you’ve got Kevin Grant on bass. He’s just one of a kind. He’s the only person that I’ve seen fast dance to a ballad, while he’s playing bass obviously. Steve Hinson. On this record we got J.T. Corenflos for electric guitar, which was a first. We had him do some overdubbing stuff on the last record. All of the stuff on “Why Don’t We Just Dance” he played. He was there from start to finish on this record. It was fun being able to work with these guys again. Production-wise I was very happy.
You mentioned “Punching Bag,” and it’s funny that you mentioned Shannon cause I’m just thinking, wow, it sounds like he’s tornado of testosterone, too! Where did that phrase come from?
I was at the Opry one night, and the segment that I was on was being hosted by Riders in the Sky. They’re just extremely creative, and they have their own unique sound. I’ve always loved those guys. When they were introducing me that night they called me the Tornado of Testosterone. You know, it kind of had a western flare to it. I just never was able to get that out of my mind. When I ended up writing “Punching Bag” and we started talking about ideas, I had this idea to ask Michael Buffer to intro this song and intro the whole record, even do a video version of it for our live show. He ended up doing all of that which was a dream come true for me. I didn’t think he would agree to do it, but he went above and beyond what we asked him to do.
My manager, Ted Greene, and I, we wrote the script for what we wanted Michael to say. We went back and forth and back and forth on the script. We wanted to have two or three nicknames; you know, in boxing a lot of times the boxer will have a nickname or two. The first one that came to mind was what the Riders in The Sky had said that night when they called me The Tornado of Testosterone. I was like, “Man, we can’t not use that.” We needed at least one more, and I was trying to think of something that rhymes with testosterone. So I came up with the Bone Shaking Baritone. We couldn’t find anything beyond that that worked, but those two together had a good feel to it.
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