Josh Turner – Haywire (MCA Nashville, 2010)
Turner broke out in 2003 with the throwback single “Long Black Train” and a bass voice that stopped listeners in their tracks. His bottomless notes and Southern accent seemed so innately country as to be resistant to Nashville’s crossover practices. His debut was filled with slip-note piano, shuffle beats, mandolin and fiddle, and even on smoother ballads like “She’ll Go On You” and “The Difference Between a Woman and a Man,” there was an ache in Turner’s voice that remained apiece with Travis, Cash and Haggard. His next two albums, 2005’s Your Man and 2007’s Everything is Fine followed similar templates, decorating his vocals with banjo, blue twang and steel, and mixing up honky-tonkers, ballads and redneck rockers.
Producer Frank Rogers (who’s also worked with Brad Paisley, Daryl Worley and Trace Adkins) crafted a sound for Turner that was radio-ready without severing the singer’s ties to tradition. Turner showed himself acutely aware of his special vocal charms, introducing songs like “Everything is Fine” with low notes that instantly grab your attention. On this fourth album Turner and Rogers follow the same pattern, and become a bit formulaic in the process. Turner remains a hugely engaging singer, but his songs feel more calculated to satisfy his audience than say something that’s burning deep in his heart or mind. The productions are smart and Nashville tight, but don’t often match the earthiness and singularity of Turner’s voice.
The album’s lead-off track, “Why Don’t We Just Dance,” was pre-released as a single and topped the country chart. Hearing Turner climb up from his low register, you get a palpable sense of how great it feels to sing such deep, chest-rattling notes. Turner sings with an ease that’s quite charming, and the band feels rougher and looser here than elsewhere on the album. His seductiveness is more direct on the ballad “I Wouldn’t Be a Man,” approaching the song similarly to Don Williams’ 1987 hit single. Turner extols his mate on “Your Smile,” but the tranquility and contentedness with which he sings seems at odds with the enthusiasm of the song’s lyrical platitudes.
Turner’s originals include the funky title track in which the singer is discombobulated by a member of the opposite sex, and his existing trio of everyman rockers (“Backwoods Boy, “Trailerhood” and “White Noise”) is extended to a quartet with “Friday Paycheck.” Blowing it out on the weekend is a time-honored topic, but Turner hasn’t anything new to say about the joys one can find in a paycheck-to-paycheck life. Listeners celebrating the end of their own work week probably care, as the song rocks a shuffle beat and has a catchy hook. The New Orleans styled funk of “All Over Me” provides a brief respite from the album’s contemporary Nashville rhythms, though the session players don’t quite hit the second line beat convincingly.
The album’s real highlight is the country soul slow-jam “Lovin’ You on My Mind.” Turner sings with strings and a backing chorus and the production artfully weaves together steel and Wurlitzer. Haywire is offered as 11-track regular and a 15-track deluxe edition. The latter adds two good studio tracks (“This Kind of Love” and “Let’s Find a Church”) and two live cuts (“Long Black Train” and “Your Man”), which are worth the extra couple of dollars. Turner remains a vocalist of distinction, but the head-turning edginess of “Long Black Train” has given way to cautious repetition. This is a good album by a gifted artist who should be releasing great albums full of memorable music that pushes the artistic ball further forward.