Album Review – Josh Turner’s “Country State of Mind”

Let’s be honest. Do we really need yet even more new versions of old country songs? Weren’t the original recordings or the ones that became the most popular plenty enough, and always fit in our brains the best? Isn’t there enough original music out there for all of us to consume, with even more being added to the pile every Friday? Hasn’t the COVID-19 era already created an entirely new backlog of cover songs and albums we couldn’t get through even if they halted the output today and the quarantine lasted until 2023? The answer is a pretty resounding “yes.”

But the wildcard here, and what makes this record worth turning your attention to is that you have the once-in-a-lifetime voice of the great Josh Turner gracing these classic songs. One of the most potent weapons in the present-day country music arsenal who tore it up in the early 2000’s, and then was put out to pasture way too early as Bro-Country began to reign, he’s back with a dozen country classics he’s cut, including many with some notable vocal contributors, and we’re completely here for it.

Whether this is Turner truly wanting to pay tribute to some old greats, or just a way to fulfill the final record on an expiring contract, he puts his heart and soul into this project by selecting and performing top songs from the country music songbook, many from the 80’s and 90’s era that is so hot right now like Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery,” or “Forever and Ever” from Randy Travis. But a few are from way back when, like the haunting “Alone and Forsaken” from Hank Williams, with Allison Moorer joining Turner on vocals.

As many cover records go, you may gravitate strongly to some songs instead of others. But everything is performed with passion and reverence, and for the most part, rendered as stone cold country, which hasn’t always been the case with some of Turner’s later material. You may applaud seeing names like Kris Kristofferson, John Anderson, and Randy Travis involved with this project, and may gag at the idea of Chris Janson or Maddie & Tae in your speakers. But they all bring an enthusiasm to this effort that does right by the material, like Runaway June joining in on the song “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me” made famous by Patty Loveless and George Jones.

Much interest preceded this record when we saw Randy Travis was listed as a featured artist. No, he hasn’t gained a full singing voice just yet, and yes, it’s just the final “Ay-yay-yay-men” at the end of “Forever and Ever, Amen” that he performs. But it’s that kind of extra care brought to each track, and a sincere attempt to pay forward these works that makes this a worthy record to seek out.

It’s natural, and unavoidable to compare these songs to their predecessors. Do we really think anyone, even Josh Turner, is going to do a better version of “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” than Keith Whitley? Isn’t the theme from the Dukes of Hazzard a little too synonymous with Waylon Jennings (and perhaps, problematic in this uptight day and age) to launch a better version?

But let’s also not take for granted that for some, this will be their first time hearing these songs, or of the artists who recorded the definitive rendition of it before. Country singers haven’t been paying tribute to past greats for decades just for their own jollies. It’s to hopefully bridge the gap of knowledge and turn new listeners on to old music, and to open their perspectives up to another era. That’s why we should celebrate Chris Janson and Maddie & Tae are here, to bring those fans into the fold. And maybe a few of their fans, or fans of Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams fans will get turned onto Josh Turner.

This is how the country music circle remains unbroken. Five separate eras in country music are represented on Country State of Mind, with the only ones left out being the most modern ones. And the song selections aren’t too obvious either. Sure, “Forever and Ever, Amen” is pretty widely known, but “Desperately” written by Bruce Robison and originally recorded by George Strait wasn’t exactly a super hit. The only song that sticks out here both as a selection and production-wise is Vern Gosdin’s “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance,” which came out much more contemporary than the rest of the record.

You can’t compare this fairly to a record of original material. But as a country cover record, Country State of Mind gets it mostly right. Being able to choose the songs he knows he can sing with conviction and clobber out of the park gives Josh Turner and unfair advantage as one of those singers you’d put on the short list of most naturally-gifted vocalists in country music right now. There’s no better illustration of his woody tone with a deep bass range than his take on “Caretaker.”

Josh Turner shows great care for country classics, and hopefully creates some new fans of old songs on the inspired and well-crafted Country State of Mind.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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