Given the title, it’s no surprise that Josh Turner pulls no punches on his latest album. Punching Bag impacts with some of the most authentic, stirring music of his decade-long career.
As a fan of boxing’s glory days, Turner looked toward some of his heroes from the ring for inspiration. “I’m definitely a fan of fighters like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Evander Holyfield,” he said. “To me, they were the greats. People considered them gods in some ways. They were so iconic in the ring, and everybody made such a big deal about each fight they had. With this record, I wanted to express the idea that life is tough. You get a lot of punches thrown at you and you have to take those punches and keep moving forward. So I just kind of channeled all of that.”
The results draw from despair on “Pallbearer” (written by Turner), which features Marty Stuart on mandolin and Iris DeMent on harmony vocal in a lonesome account of a longtime family friend’s death. They also bubble over with joy on “Find Me a Baby” (Turner and the album’s producer, Frank Rogers), on which the voices of his wife and kids appear, along with their new baby’s gurgling laugh.
Turner wrote eight of its 11 tracks and is particularly proud of the two he created on his own, “Pallbearer” and the upbeat, gospel-infused “For the Love of God.” It also powerfully affirms his roots in classic Country, from the keening steel and weeping fiddle of “Cold Shoulder” (Turner and Mark Narmore) down to Ricky Skaggs’ vocal and instrumental contributions to “For the Love of God.”
“The inspiration behind asking Ricky to be on this record was from a record he had done calledSolo,” Turner noted. “It was a record of songs his daddy had loved. Ricky had sung everything and used all kinds of crazy instruments on it. It was really earthy, very traditional old-timey bluegrass. You don’t hear those kinds of records anymore, especially new records. And I fell in love with that record. So when I wrote ‘For the Love of God,’ I thought it would be great to have Ricky come in and play some of those instruments that nobody else can play. And we wanted him to sing on it too because he’s got such a great voice, so that was a dream come true too.”
Even at this stage of the game, Turner admits that it’s not easy to come up with a song that completely satisfies him. “It’s never been easy for me, from day one,” he said. “I guess I’m more critical of each song I write because I try to make each one better than the last. Sometimes that’s a hard thing to do. It’s a constant challenge. I started writing at 17, so I feel like I got somewhat of a late start at that, but I’ve always worked at it and tried to get better. I’ve always been in love with words; I love word games and crossword puzzles, and I’m always looking for new ways to use words and rhymes and little twists on titles. A lot of times, certain words will mean something totally different to me than they would to a normal person,” he added, laughing.
“But when I go in to make a record, I don’t necessarily have a direction I want to go in. I just write the songs that come from my heart. I listen to thousands of songs in preparation for a record and choose the ones I really feel strongly about. When I put this record together, I noticed right off that this was probably one of my most Country records I’ve ever done,” he reflected. “I didn’t start out with that in mind; it just kind of happened that way. “
In many respects, then, Punching Bag is Turner’s most personal as well as most traditional effort to date. That’s one reason why Cracker Barrel is sponsoring his current tour and also released its own Turner CD, Josh Turner – Live Across America on Aug. 27 for sale exclusively in Cracker Barrel Old Country Stories. The company had previously issued another Turner concert album,Live at the Ryman.
“With Josh we looked at his success, his authenticity, his country roots and family values, and all of that obviously was a brand fit for Cracker Barrel,” said Julie Craig, Marketing Manager, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores. “We knew that his success as an artist was going to marry up wonderfully with what we could do on projects and his tour sponsorships as well.”
Though steeped in Country tradition, Punching Bag represents a departure from tradition in marketing through its use of the multi-channel retailer HSN.
When Turner called in as a guest in 2011 during an HSN broadcast in May 2011, he had no idea he’d be starring someday in an HSN special of his own. In May this year, he appeared on the network’s “HSN Live” show to promote a bundle that included Punching Bag and a best-of CD,Icon: The Best of Josh Turner. Like Lionel Richie, whose previous appearance on HSN helped build awareness of his Country Music album Tuskegee, Turner found this an effective way to market a new album to a bevy of home shoppers who might not have been familiar with his music.
“I knew Randy Travis had done it because I actually had made a call in to his live show,” Turner said. “Outside of that, I didn’t know a lot about HSN. But as I prepared for the show, I learned that HSN has started to get into introducing products for artists and they’ve been having a lot of success. So I was kind of excited about the whole venture. It’s great for music. It’s great for HSN. It’s great for the fans to be able to get a sneak peek into a piece of new product and decide whether or not they want it and then go ahead and order it — and then get some extra stuff along with the new album. So it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
HSN’s earlier, ultra-successful experience with Lionel Richie primed them to get ready for Turner’s appearance and concert. “Obviously, Lionel was the biggest one we’ve had so far,” said Andy Sheldon, Executive VP, TV/Live Events/Creative, HSN. “His integration into Country Music was so spectacular, and it just felt that getting to Josh now would be the right thing to do. He’s at the prime of his career. He’s loved and adored and has had such huge success. This was a great way to introduce him to our audience and also bring his audience to HSN.”
“We’ve been turning the network around in the last five years,” Sheldon continued. “We’ve made some significant changes, and one of the areas of real growth for us has been to merge entertainment retail with lifestyle. A lot of people thought we were crazy, that it wouldn’t work. But actually, it categorically does work. We’ve become a much more accessible, more user-friendly, sharper platform that really understands the brand, whether it’s Lionel or Josh or Badgley Mischka (fashion). It’s my job to understand the DNA of that brand and bring it to life, so there’s individuality but it fits within the brand that we work to create — and that’s HSN.”
For his May 25 appearance on “HSN Live,” Turner performed a 60-minute concert, which also streamed live on www.HSN.com and HSNMobile and included a live Twitter feed. The electronic retailer has become particularly adept in recent years at producing top-rate music specials, according to Sheldon.
“We know how to produce content that viewers respond to,” he said. “Our objective with ’HSN Live’ is to provide an environment where artists can showcase their music in a way that is compelling, entertaining and ultimately drives sales. Our crew understands the art and nuances of live stage production and executes flawlessly. Top artists like Lionel, Tony Bennett and a number of others have said their HSN appearances are some of the best produced shows they’ve ever been on. That’s great to hear and clearly demonstrates that HSN knows how to produce live music events for television, as well as our digital platforms.”
The success of “HSN Live” has triggered a flood of requests from artists and labels eager to participate in the special. “Absolutely, we want to explore more and work further on the Country scene,” Sheldon said. “We’ve been working with Tom Lord (VP, Marketing, Universal Music Nashville) about various opportunities and ideas because Country Music is so important to the music scene in the U.S. and shouldn’t be ignored. So many people love Country, so we’re glad we’re able to provide a platform and give the artists the exposure and the opportunity to perform. There are very few opportunities for artists and the fans to talk to each other during a live TV show. That’s an engaging element we’re able to provide. And as we continue to develop that, we’re talking to so many labels and artists about opportunities right now.”
For Turner, the HSN special is just one more step in a career that he feels is only just starting. “It’s hard to believe I’ve been around as long as I have been, because I still consider myself a new artist,” he said. “I still feel young, so looking back on 10 years of being in this business is kind of surreal. In some ways, it feels really short. In others, it feels like it’s dragging on. But it’s cool to be able to see or listen to the music I started making when I came to town and how much I’ve grown from that time. For instance, because I was so close to ‘Long Black Train’ — I wrote it, I was the singer on it – I always experienced it from a completely different angle than anyone else. Now, when I go back and listen to ‘Long Black Train,’ I can almost start to hear what people heard in the beginning. It’s a good place for me to be.”
On the Web: www.JoshTurner.com
On Twitter: @JoshTurnerMusic