The experience of putting on a live show is something that many a country singer cherishes, and Josh Turner is certainly no exception. His new Cracker Barrel release Live Across America – which drops on August 27 – attempts to encapsulate for his fans the experience of attending a Josh Turner live show. The platinum selling country music star, whose current single “Time Is Love” just became his sixth Top 10 hit, recently sat down with a small group of media journalists (including yours truly), to talk about his experiences in touring across the country, and in making this live record.
On the live show experience and his connection to the fans: My show has grown over the years. We started out just playing some really small venues, playing bars. We didn’t have a lot of technology and a lot of equipment that we could carry along with us. We were all traveling on one bus. It was just humble times. As I’ve had hits, as I’ve sold records, as I’ve continued to make somewhat of a profit, we’ve been able to take more stuff out on the road to improve our show – to try to make it better not only musically, but visually for the fans. Luckily I’m to a place now where we’re carrying lights out; we’re carrying video; we’re carrying as much equipment as we need to put on the show that we put on now. As traditional as I am, I feel like my show is pretty high energy. We have a lot of wireless units that we use to where not only me but my band guys can move around onstage – They’re not tied to a cable somewhere. We have three big video walls going on behind us that’s showing video footage and video content. I feel like it’s pretty high energy.
For the connection that we have with the fans, I’m excited that I get to share it with them because they come out, and they pay a certain price for the ticket, and I want to give them their money’s worth so that when they come to a Josh Turner show, they’re not just coming for the songs. They’re coming for an experience. I’m excited to be at a level of my career where I can give them that, and where they can go away just in awe, and wanting to come back the next time I come around.
On the challenges of recording live: Well, it’s your typical challenges, technical difficulties. It depends on what kind of production companies you end up with on the road, the kind of venue we’re at, if it was an outdoor thing, depending on the weather. There was a lot of variables. The good thing is technology has come to a place where it’s a little easier to get a recording. These performances that we chose are just kind of from those nights and those venues were the crowd was really into it, but they weren’t so wild and rambunctious to where you couldn’t hear the music like you should. It was from good-sounding venues, depending on what kind of song it was. We just really kind of chose the ones where we were all feeling good and playing good, and the magic was happening, and we didn’t have any technical difficulties and all that. Probably these were the nights where we tried not to think about the fact that we were being recorded. It’s a little different recording a live show because when you’re in a studio, you know when the tape is rolling, or when the machine is rolling, and so there’s always that feeling of “All right, I gotta do it the best that I can do it – I can’t mess this up” kind of thing. But with a live show, you know it’s not gonna be perfect, but you still try to do your best that you can do. You’re not only singing, and not only playing, but you’re also entertaining, so that kind of gives it a different flair. There was a lot of challenges to this, but the good thing was we didn’t have to go out of our way, or schedule extra days to make a record. We were recording live as it was happening, and as we know it out on the road.
On the experience of touring with keyboardist wife Jennifer, who appears on the album: I’m excited for her because she gets to hear her work and her talent on a recorded piece of material. It’s tangible now. I’m excited not only for her but for my whole band because I feel like I have a really good band. They got to show off their talents on this record, and they get something to show for it now, my wife included. I can sit here and talk about how great I think she is or they are, but now we have that proof right here on that record.
It’s great for me to go and do a show, and to be playing to a crowd, and then turn right around and see my soul mate back there playing piano and singing harmonies with me. We go to the stage together; we leave the stage together; we meet three little monkeys at the bus door, so there’s nothing better for us right now. It’s something that I realize is fleeting, and that probably won’t last forever, so we’re just cherishing it while it lasts. There’s nothing better than being able to play music, especially at this level, with your spouse.
On memories associated with touring in different cities: There are some stories with some of these cities, but we play so much on the road that it’s hard to remember everything. If I go to a city one time, I pretty much remember it. I think it’s part of my photographic memory. The one interesting thing about this record, for the “Why Don’t We Just Dance” track, we recorded that in a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and needless to say, that was one of the more energetic crowds we had. We were out there doing our show, and I think it was right before this song or somewhere within this show, little comments and little things that the fans would scream out between songs or even during songs was pretty entertaining, pretty comical. There was this one fan in New Jersey at some point during the show that was yelling out for me to take my shirt off or something like that! It was just crazy. Little stuff like that we kind of had to edit out – obviously wouldn’t want that to be on a Cracker Barrel record! [Laughs] It’s just funny for me because I know that it was there, and we had to take it out. Little things like that just kind of make me laugh, and all of these places that we play were pretty special, and I think that’s why the performances from these towns ended up on this record because the fans were just into it one way or the other!
On his favorite live albums: I guess one of the first live albums I ever heard was Johnny Cash, Live at San Quentin. That really inspired me to kind of delve into more of Johnny Cash’s repertoire and his catalog – what he had done prior to that and even beyond that. When I came across that record, it was many years after it had been made. I found it on vinyl at an antique store somewhere back home. It was cool because you got to hear a show that happened a long time ago. You got to hear the bantering between the songs, and you got to hear all the imperfections within the songs, and you got to hear the energy from the crowd, and you knew that they were inmates and that this was a special time for them. It was an experience to able to sit and listen to something like that. Obviously the technology has come a long way since 1968, and obviously none of these songs were recorded in a prison, but Johnny Cash, Live at San Quentin was probably one of my favorite ones. Another one that I always liked was Lyle Lovett’s Live in Texas. That was another one of my favorites too. I love Lyle Lovett, and I think he’s a great artist.
On the influence of his musical heroes: Johnny Cash, obviously, and Randy Travis, Hank Williams, Vern Gosdin, and John Anderson are my five big heroes in my musical life. Not only have I learned from their success, but I’ve learned from their mistakes. I don’t think it’s right to look at somebody and say ‘I want to be just like them,’ because you’ll never be just like them. For me, the biggest thing my heroes taught me was how to be Josh Turner – the good and the bad of it. That’s what I’ve strived to do from day one. When I get up onstage, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not trying to be Johnny Cash. I’m not trying to be Randy Travis. There’s already a Johnny Cash, and already a Randy Travis. I’m trying to be the best Josh Turner that I can be, musically and personally. I think this record really kind of shows a lot of that, because this record, as opposed to the last live record that I did for Cracker Barrel (Live at the Ryman, 2007) has more of the hits throughout my career in it, and it really was cool to be able to have a recorded live version of these songs, and hear how the crowds react to it, so I’m excited about it.
On covering Waylon Jennings’ “America”: The name of the record obviously is Live Across America, and basically that’s what this record is. It’s twelve tracks. Each one of them was recorded in a different city, so it really gives the fans kind of a little taste of what it’s like to travel from city to city to city, and sing these songs. It’s an interesting record because it’s a little bit of a journey for the fans because it gives them a taste of what it’s like for us. It’s not really a patriotic record, but it’s definitely an American record. Each one of these scenes is very different. The crowds are 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. When I was trying to think of a song that kind of summed all that up, I didn’t want to choose your standard straight-up patriotic kind of song. I was looking for something else – something that kind of told the American story in a cool kind of way. That would still fit in with what we’re doing, so the first song that came to mind was this Waylon song “America.” We kind of created our own arrangement of this song, and obviously it’s more broken-down than Waylon’s version. I wanted it to be a little more intimate. I wanted it to be as if I was telling this story, and I was really pleased with the way it turned out.
On the inclusion of “So Not My Baby” (an unreleased album track from Everything Is Fine): “So Not My Baby” just has kind of an interesting story to it, because I heard that song years ago, and I fell in love with it. I felt like it was a hip way to say that. I felt like it had the potential to be a single, and at being a hit – I still feel like it should have been. It was on my Everything Is Fine album. I actually tried to record it twice on the Your Manalbum. For whatever reason – Either we ran out of time, or it just was not coming together – It just didn’t stick for whatever reason. It just kind of haunted me. I knew that it was a good song, and I knew we had everything we needed to create a track on it. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t working. I guess the time just wasn’t right. So when the Everything Is Fine album rolled around, on the very first session, very first day, my producer Frank Rogers and I said, “You know what? We need to go in there right now and just start on this song, because if it takes three hours, it takes three hours. That’s exactly what we did. We went in and we really just wrestled this thing to the ground, and it turned out great. We put harmonica on it, and it just turned out to be a great dancing songs. We played it live out on the road for a long time, and it always got a great reaction. Then when it came time to make this record, they were letting me choose three more acoustic tracks. “America” was one of them. “Me and God” was the other. I wanted to bring back “So Not My Baby” because it shows off my vocal range. It’s a good dancing song, and it’s a cool way to tell that message.
On what he considers his signature song: “Long Black Train.” It’s not a commercial song. I was surprised when they even decided to release it. It was actually my second single. A lot of people think it was my first, but it was actually my second single. The first single died at #45. So when they came to look at the possibility of the next single, they were looking at “Long Black Train,” and 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,” and they chose “Long Black Train.” I was still kind of thinking in the back of my mind that ‘This is not gonna be good!’ Because 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 would automatically say ‘Oh, that’s a radio-friendly song.’ I was just really surprised at how well the song did. I was surprised at the impact that it had on people, the impact it had on my career. I wrote it by myself, and when I think of signature songs, I think of “Hello Darlin’.” I think of “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I think of “I Told You So.” I think of “Folsom Prison Blues.” I could go on and on with artists who wrote a song by themselves, and it became their signature song, and “Long Black Train” is that song for me. I can’t do a show, and not sing it. Fans still love it, and thank goodness!