After seeing the fan reaction to his 2018 gospel record, I Serve a Savior, Josh Turner and his team realized something that caught their interest.
“There’s a variety of ways to have success these days,” Turner says to Country Now. “‘I Serve a Savior’ hadn’t followed the typical trajectory of a country release, sending singles one by one to radio. It wasn’t even, strictly speaking, a country album. But they paired it with a live performance DVD and a vinyl release, and the response from listeners was undeniable.
“It sold like hotcakes,” he goes on to say. “So when we saw that framework, we realized we could do a lot of different things. We decided to come back towards the country direction, but do something a little different.”
Enter Country State of Mind, Turner’s new duets project of classic covers. Ranging from all corners of traditional country, the singer culled 12 iconic songs and put his own spin on each. Whittling down the track list, he says, was a relatively organic process. It began with the five legends — Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, John Anderson, Randy Travis and Vern Gosdin — who he considers his personal “Mount Rushmore” of country music.
“The first song that came to mind when we got clearance to do this record was an old Vern Gosdin song, ‘I Can Tell By the Way You Dance.’ I’ve always loved that song,” Turner recalls. “I felt like it had a timeless element to it, but that it needed a reinvention from all the ‘80s production that bogged it down. So that was the first song [I added to the track list.]”
One by one, the others came to mind. Some of the tracks on Country State of Mind were big hits; others were more obscure. Turner says when he was going through each artist’s discography, he chose the song of theirs that was at the intersection between their musical style and his own.
“So like, for Kris Kristofferson for instance. It wouldn’t make as much sense for me to go in and sing [‘The Silver Tongued Devil and I’]. It made more sense for me to sing a song like ‘Why Me,’” he explains. “And the same is true for Hank Jr. There’s certain songs that probably wouldn’t make sense coming from me, but ‘Country State of Mind’ has always been my favorite Hank Jr. song. So that played into my decision, too.”
He also thought long and hard about each duet partner he chose for each song. Chris Janson, Maddie & Tae, Runaway June and Alison Moorer all serve as duet partners throughout Country State of Mind. For one thing, Turner selected that group of artists to join him because they’re his friends. Perhaps even more importantly, though, for a project honoring country music legends, was finding artists with a deep reverence for the genre’s more traditional side.
“They just have an appreciation for the history of country music. They’re trying to push country music into the future. And they’re just good people. I love being around them,” Turner offers.
“We had considered some other artists, but some of them either weren’t available or didn’t meet the criteria, so to speak,” he continues. “I felt like some of them had kind of taken a departure from their roots and the real kinda country music that I’m looking for…I think the choices ended up being great and sounding great.”
The project is centered around honoring country history, and it also made a little country history of its own along the way. Runaway June’s work on “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” marked the trio’s first recorded appearance with new bandmate Natalie Stovall, following Hannah Mulholland’s departure from the group.
“And history was actually made twice on this record,” Turner adds. His version of “Forever and Ever Amen” includes a short vocal contribution from Randy Travis, who originally recorded the song and is among Turner’s country music “Mount Rushmore.” The day they cut that track was the first studio session Travis had done since a 2013 stroke severely impacted his ability to sing and speak.
“You know, I’ve been friends with Randy for a really long time. We’ve been on TV together. We’ve been on records together. We’ve been on stage together,” Turner says of the moment that Travis laid down his vocal part for the song’s final word, “Amen.” “To have him come in in light of everything that’s happened to him lately, it was a pretty emotional moment.
“I didn’t even know that he hadn’t been in the studio since his stroke until he actually got in there behind the mic, when his wife Mary and I started talking about it,” he adds. “That’s when I realized what a special moment it was for everybody involved. And yeah, he sang one word. But within that one word, he really said a lot.”
Travis wasn’t the only “Mount Rushmore” artist that joined Turner on his new rendition of one of their songs: Kris Kristofferson accompanied him for “Why Me,” and John Anderson joined in on “I’ve Got it Made.” Turner admits that it was a little nerve-wracking duetting with his heroes — for a recording of their own song, no less.
“It’s always intimidating,” he adds with a laugh. “John Anderson’s one of my closest friends in this business, and when he comes in to sing on one of my records, it’s always a dream come true. But this time we were singing one of his songs — one of his hits! So I had to really make sure that I wasn’t trying to sing it like John.”
Kristofferson’s vocals were a relatively late addition to the project — Turner had already recorded his part of the song. But when he got in touch to ask if he’d add his voice to “Why Me,” the singer says he was floored by how gracious and excited Kristofferson was.
“Having somebody of that stature, a Country Music Hall of Famer, in his 80s, being willing to take part in something like this — it’s very humbling,” he reflects.
While the artists Turner covered in Country State of Mind are titans in the genre, the singer knows that not all of them are household names to every listener. That’s one of the reasons why he wanted to make the album in the first place: To reintroduce a younger generation of country fans to the talents of performers like Vern Gosdin.
“I’m a huge fan of Vern. I consider him to be one of my vocal teachers,” Turner relates. “His nickname is The Voice, and there’s a reason for that — yes, long before the TV show!”
And there are plenty of other artists who are under-appreciated today, the singer goes on to say.
“It’s crazy how names like Vern Gosdin and Hank Williams, even John Anderson, aren’t even spoken by a lot of the younger generation. I try to showcase the songs from these types of artists in a really cool way, so it appeals to a new audience, and they can be like, ‘Man, whose song is that?’ And discover a new world of country music that they didn’t even know existed,” he says.
“That’s why I’m always preaching the fact that you can’t sit there and say, ‘Oh, I don’t like country music.’ Because country music is so diverse,” Turner continues. “And has so many different styles within it. If you listen long enough, you’re gonna find something that you like.”