It’s no secret that my original intention with this feature was to reconnect with old childhood favorites. And, like with Shania Twain, Brad Paisley and Lee Ann Womack before, I owe a lot of my early love for country music to Josh Turner.
To many fans, he’s the artist who somewhat stuck out like a sore thumb in the 2000s for singing tried-and-true traditional country music, almost as if he was supposed to rise alongside artists such as Randy Travis, Vern Gosdin, or Keith Whitley decades before. But, that’s also not quite fair. Old-school as it was, I never felt like Turner’s material ever sound dated; it was just more like the rare exception of a genre embracing a modern world and trying to find its place within it. To me, considering I owe pretty much all of my love of the genre to my grandparents, my memories are more closely associated with specific hits like “Long Black Train” – specifically in how it’d stop both of my grandparents dead in their tracks every time it came on the radio – or “Your Man,” and how they were, in hindsight, like gateways into an older time period while still feeling fresh for the current one.
Cliché as it might be to say, it was that voice that captivated me. I made the sonic comparisons already to certain neotraditional artists, but I think another fitting one to toss in would be Don Williams: There’s a familiar, almost comforting feel to the material and the way it’s delivered that has always made it easy to revisit. I won’t necessarily say Turner was ever an album artist (his best cohesive collection thus far is arguably his covers project from 2020, though 2008’s Everything is Fine is up there, too), or that some of his songs aren’t a bit over-the-top in their sentiments at points and corny, but I’ve definitely missed having him around as a consistent chart presence. Then again, considering it’s no secret that he never gelled with the bro-country era or what came afterward, I’m glad he never really tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. Instead, he’s focused mainly on passion projects in recent years.
Still, I think it’s time to give an artist his fair due, so if you’re new to this feature, the premise is simple: I’m running down my list of favorite Josh Turner singles and am inviting you to do the same. It’s all in good fun, so anyway, onward!
No. 15, “Firecracker” (written by Shawn Camp, Pat McLaughlin, and Josh Turner)
I’ll admit that this first entry sort of fits into that camp of being a bit over-the-top. It stretches out its title hook until it’s in the ground … but man, what an infectious little tune, all the same. Beyond just being a great country singer, Josh Turner has always had charisma to burn, and this may be one of the best showcases of that. A firestorm worth setting off, indeed.
No. 14, “White Noise” (feat. John Anderson) (written by Josh Turner and John Anderson)
This is a weird one to explain, if only because the entire premise is a bit cringe-worthy and only comes around to show its hand at the very hand: A love letter to country music that celebrates the “white boys” before essentially saying that it’s not about that – country music is for everyone to enjoy, make, and sing. So, yeah, it kind of stumbles to make that point, but this is still, like “Firecracker,” a deliriously catchy turbo-tonk number where Turner and John Anderson, of all people, have a great amount of chemistry and interplay with each other.
No. 13, “Your Man” (written by Jace Everett, Chris DuBois, and Chris Stapleton)
It’s arguably a classic of the 2000s, and while it’s not quite my favorite Turner love song, the bones of what make him such a compelling performer are all here. It’s a good song elevated by a better performance, where Turner gets to effectively exercise his trademark baritone that would get somewhat lost on future releases. It all may be tasteful as a whole in presentation and execution, but hey, it’s still fun to (try) and sing along to all these years later. That opening line is iconic.
No. 12, “Everything is Fine” (written by Josh Turner)
I enjoy songs about the joy of mundanity far more than I should, if only because I’m a pretty simple guy myself. With that said, I see the irony in placing a song like this on a “best of” list. It’s straightforward and maybe even one-dimensional in the way Turner runs down the positive aspects of his life he’s thankful for. But it’s all delivered with so much easy charm and sincerity (especially when Turner utilizes his lower register effectively here), that it’s always just made me feel, well, fine, and sometimes that’s enough.
No. 11, “Wonder” (written by Josh Turner and Mark Narmore)
Turner’s one-off stab at modernity and a radio comeback in 2017’s Deep South probably hasn’t aged that well, but it’s still got a few highlights worth talking about. This is one example, where the plentiful atmospherics compliment a solid bass groove to craft something a bit more tempered as Turner cycles through past regrets and resorts to wishful thinking to get by. Another fairly straightforward sentiment, all things considered, but for as much as he wonders about what might have been, he knows his former partner has likely found happiness wherever she is, and that he needs to move on to try and do the same. Or heck, maybe she didn’t. Either way, it doesn’t matter because what’s done is done, and deep down he knows that. An underrated deep-cut, and one worth seeking out.
No. 10, “Why Don’t We Just Dance” (written by Jim Beavers, Jonathan Singleton, and Darrell Brown)
I always want to remember Turner as a great balladeer for some reason, yet this is the third entry on this list thus far that’s an absolute barn-burner. Well, kind of. It’s an invitation to the dance floor for a special someone … which in this case means Turner’s living room and his wife. So, yeah, it’s silly, but he knows it, so he has a blast with it regardless and lets some steam loose in a way that feels relatable to ordinary couples. It may be a mere little ditty, all things considered, but it’s still handled effectively.
No. 9, “Lay Low” (written by Tony Martin, Mark Nesler, and Ross Copperman)
Ah, yes, the start of a story that would instigate Turner’s long absence from country radio … because, you know, bro-country. Funny, though, that during a time period where mindless escapism was the name of the game for so many radio hits, Turner delivered a more thoughtful, mature take on the subject that involved escaping somewhere with a partner to reclaim a clear head and peace of mind. This was around the time I stopped listening to country radio altogether, but I’ll always cherish hearing this compared to just about everything else released at the time. It deserved so much better.
No. 8, “Cold Shoulder” (written by Mark Narmore and Josh Turner)
Turner has always sounded best with a neotraditional country sound, no doubt, but this is a stone-cold country classic a few decades late to the party that still sounds utterly gorgeous, right down to the terrific slow burn of that pedal steel and piano interplay and expected double entendre of the hook. And, though we never understand why his character actually has been given the cold shoulder, the feeling of suspense in the unexpected and potential heartbreak to come is a familiar blueprint for this type of song. And it’s one that works damn-near every time.
No. 7, “Loretta Lynn’s Lincoln” (written by Shawn Camp and Mark D. Sanders)
I may have essentially labeled “Firecracker” and “Why Don’t We Just Dance” as raucous barn-burners before, but Turner really let loose on this weird-ass dream sequence that includes, among other things, buying the titular artist’s Lincoln and scoring a date with Dolly Parton because of it. The everyman persona has always suited Turner fine, but this suspension of reality absolutely makes for one of his best tunes, especially when it sports one of his best hooks and laidback grooves, to date. Also, yeah, Chris Stapleton is a noticeable background vocalist here, a decade before his own rise. Some dreams come true, I guess.
No. 6, “Another Try” (feat. Trisha Yearwood) (written by Chris Stapleton and Jeremy Spillman)
OK, look, you had me at “Josh Turner featuring Trisha Yearwood.” That it just so happens to be an impeccable slow burn of a country song filled with terrific and understated production in the minor swell building mainly off the burnished textures in the piano and fiddle and dobro interplay (and later, those strings) is all just an added bonus. But I’ll be honest and say that without Turner here to guide this with somber conviction, this song asking us to sympathize with a character who failed at love the first time around might not have become the underrated classic it is today. Here, it’s easy to tell that the mistakes Turner’s character made are ones he deeply regrets, and I like that having Yearwood on backing vocals adds the subtle implication that she could play the role of the other partner who’s sad it didn’t work out either. That it didn’t even crack my top five means we’ve got some great stuff ahead, indeed.
No. 5, “Nowhere Fast” (feat. Anthony Hamilton) (written by Anthony Hamilton and Kelvin Wooten)
It blows my mind that no matter the guest vocalist, be it John Anderson, Trisha Yearwood or R&B legend Anthony Hamilton, Turner not only always holds his own as a singer, but also always has great chemistry and interplay with whoever joins him. I’ve always likened this as – spoiler? – the other side of “Long Black Train,” a deep descent into temptation and regret that Turner claws his way out of, if only to warn someone else in that aforementioned song. This is the contemplative deep-cut in Turner’s discography that remains an absolute gem to this day, especially when one gets to that bone-chilling, soaring high on the closing chorus, which feels as much like a cathartic release for both artists as it does an ode to being thankful for today. Soulful and stirring only scratches the surface in trying to describe it. It’s unlike much else in Turner’s discography, and it’s all the more special for it.
No. 4, “Pallbearer” (feat. Iris DeMent and Marty Stuart) (written by Josh Turner)
OK, look, you had me at “Josh Turner featuring
Trisha Yearwood Iris DeMent and Marty Stuart.” In all seriousness, like with “Another Try” and “Nowhere Fast” before, my favorite cuts of Turner’s are the ones to drill a bit deeper and hit at something more complex, comfortable or otherwise. Between the swell of minor keys, haunting backing vocals from DeMent and terrific mandolin work from Stuart, this extended metaphor for the death of a love channels something akin to Hank Williams, at least in spirit and direct frankness. And it’s all dark enough to let Turner’s baritone shine like little else in his discography – a goodbye where the weight of lonesomeness really hits, even despite it being a familiar tale.
No. 3, “Would You Go With Me” (written by Shawn Camp and John Scott Sherrill)
If there’s just one song I associate with pure nostalgia, it’s this. I’m not sure I’ve heard something be this pleasantly organic and simultaneously strikingly modern in its presentation … pretty much ever. The question of commitment here is approached with a bit of unease in the danger that could lurk ahead, but adds more dark mystique off the plucky, minor, liquid interplay of dobro, bass, banjo and mandolin – and hey, have I mentioned yet just how utterly gorgeous this sounds? There’s something oddly transcendental about a lot of these songs within the top five, and this is a love song that feels more like a sweeping journey or a dream; one worth having, too, at that.
No. 2, “The Longer the Waiting (the Sweeter the Kiss)” (written by Roger Cook and Pat McLaughlin)
It’s not lost on me that most of this top five mainly consists of songs that struggle with finding meaning on Earth or beyond – of questioning one’s path and hoping to find some kind of salvation at the end, even despite a few stumbles. Turner has his more direct songs to tackle this, but I’ve always loved the ones that are more universal in interpretation, like this absolutely beautiful sendoff from a sailor about to embark on a long journey to his wife, all backed by a gentle waltz cadence. And yet, even against that gentle sway that may as well echo the steady tide of the journey at sea, it’s made clear early on that the sailor’s journey is to the next world, with the message to his significant other being … to keep living. Find someone else and live out life to its fullest potential, and know that no matter what’s ahead, he’ll try and wait just for that chance to be with her again, even if it’s just to say hello again. It’s one of my favorite songs to tackle the concept of an afterlife next to “When I Get Where I’m Going,” and against beautiful production and a beautiful bagpipe sendoff, it would easily make for my favorite Turner single, if not for nostalgia overtaking one other selection for me.
Before I unveil my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list, presented in no particular order:
“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” (written by Jim Croce)
“Lord Have Mercy On A Country Boy” (written by Bob McDill)
“What It Ain’t” (written by Tim Mensy and Monty Criswell)
“Your Smile” (written by Elliot Park)
And plenty of covers, including “Alone and Forsaken” (feat. Allison Moorer and written by Hank Williams Sr.), “You Don’t Seem to Miss” (feat. Runaway June and written by Jim Lauderdale), and “Silver Wings” (written by Merle Haggard):
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1, “Long Black Train” (written by Josh Turner)
And thus, Josh Turner made his breakthrough with a song that, by all means, many would have expected to fail at radio, but kept on … uh, chugging, all the same. Those memories of this song stopping my grandparents dead in their tracks every time it came on the radio live forever rent free in my mind, and as a pure, standalone song, it’s undoubtedly a classic of the 21st century thus far. The usual praise-and-worship presentation style for this type of rousing gospel number is there, but feels more grounded in realism. The real strength has always been in its inspiring energy and accessibility in framing it around something as common as the temptations of sin, which even Turner admits is alluring at times. It’s also why I made the Don Williams comparison in my introduction, because while there’s a confident gentleness in Turner’s delivery, there’s also a paradoxical unease in its lyrical framing that’s presented with sincerity over unsettling preachiness. It may not the first song of his that people remember today, but it was the first time a larger audience was exposed to that voice. Nearly 20 years later, while I’ve had my regrets just like anyone else, I’ve mostly steered closer of that deeper descent, and I think it’s because this reminds me how there’s always something worth fighting for … today and tomorrow.