Josh Turner pauses as he enters the backstage hallway of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, taking time to say hello and chat with Grand Ole Opry crew members as he makes the short journey to his dressing room for the evening.
In just a few hours, Turner will make an appearance on the Opry, which relocates to the Ryman — its full-time home from 1943 to 1974 — during the winter months. It’s a building that has witnessed substantial country music history, and Turner became a part of that history when he gave his first Opry performance in 2001.
“Every time I set foot on the Ryman stage, I can’t not think about my debut here,” Turner says, reflecting on the moment.
He earned two standing ovations and an encore that night singing “Long Black Train,” a mysterious hymn about sin and redemption he was inspired to write after listening to rare Hank Williams recordings. Since then, Turner has performed on the Opry more than 150 times and, in 2017, he marked his first decade as a member.
So in a way, tonight’s performance serves as a reminder of the dual role he plays as both a keeper of country music’s historical traditions and a current hitmaker. He topped the Mediabase country radio chart just last year with “Hometown Girl,” but tonight, Turner will treat the audience to a few songs from his first-ever gospel album, I Serve a Savior. The long-awaited project, released in October, makes Turner the latest in a long line of country artists to capture their religious roots on tape, including his heroes Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, the Osborne Brothers and, of course, Hank Williams.
Williams’ presence looms especially large on I Serve a Savior. In addition to the inclusion of a new, live version of “Long Black Train,” the entire collection kicks off with Turner’s twist on Williams’ well-worn gospel staple “I Saw the Light.” Considering its place within the pantheon of popular religious country songs, Turner could have phoned it in and done a straight read of the song with no changes. Instead, he reimagines “I Saw the Light” with bluesy minor notes at the end of certain phrases to bring out darker shadings more in line with Williams’ mournful “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
”Hank focused a lot on the blues aspect of human emotion and the loneliness and the heartache and heartbreak and all that,” says Turner. “I like to think he would appreciate what I’ve done with this song, because it adds that element to a song that has always sounded upbeat and happy and positive.”
Like Williams, Turner spent a lot of his childhood singing hymns in his Hannah, South Carolina, church before forming a gospel quartet, the Thankful Hearts, as a teenager. The group often performed “Without Him,” one of Elvis Presley’s well-known gospel numbers, and Turner recorded a new version of the song on I Serve a Savior as a nod to that formative musical experience.
Outside the church walls, Turner soaked up the gospel, country and bluegrass sounds found in his grandmother’s record collection. Bluegrass duo the Osborne Brothers were in regular rotation on his grandmother’s turntable, and one of their gospel songs, “I Pray My Way Out of Trouble,” has been rattling around in Turner’s head since childhood. He invited the duo’s Bobby Osborne, who is now 86, to sing that song with him on the album, and Osborne joined him later that night to perform the song live on the Opry.
That song has another classic country connection Turner didn’t know about until he recorded it. Loretta Lynn co-wrote “I Pray My Way Out of Trouble” with Teddy Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers and recorded it on her third gospel album, 1972’s God Bless America Again. Looking back on it now, Turner picks up on Lynn’s straightforward writing style and phrasing in the lyrics.
“I mean, from the first opening line of the song — ‘Many times my mind is wrapped up in trouble’ — you can tell, ‘Oh yeah, that could easily be a Loretta Lynn song,’” he says. “It all makes sense.”
For a more recent example of gospel breaking into the country mainstream, Turner points to 2001’s wildly successful soundtrack from the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, featuring Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and more. The album whet the public’s appetite to hear new life breathed into traditional hymns and gospel songs, which helped pave the way for the impact “Long Black Train” made when it was released to country radio in 2003.
The O Brother soundtrack also hearkened back to the very beginning of country music with a cover of the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” being one of the key tracks. Along with Jimmie Rodgers, when the Carter Family made their recording debut in Bristol, Tennessee, as part of country’s “Big Bang” in 1927, they were already mixing gospel material in among their more secular songs.
“I tell people all the time, the first country recordings ever made at Bristol, Tennessee, had gospel stuff all over it,” says Turner. “It was part of their life. It’s who they are. They were writing that stuff. They were singing that stuff. It’s always been a part of country music.”
Far from being just a part of country’s ancient history, gospel has numerous contemporary examples as well, with Carrie Underwood incorporating her faith into singles like the 2014 Christian crossover hit “Something in the Water” or Randy Travis’s inspirational ballad “Three Wooden Crosses” winning CMA Song of the Year in 2003. And then there’s Alan Jackson’s gospel collection, Precious Memories, which had a profound impact on Turner when it was released in 2006.
After recording a few hymns at his mother’s request, Jackson was pleased with the way they turned out and released the album publicly. Turner still gets choked up when he listens to Jackson’s straightforward delivery of “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” and “How Great Thou Art.”
“It was the mesh of the songs I grew up singing in church and this voice I grew up listening to,” he says. “There’s just a lot of heart and soul in this record. He didn’t try to change himself or put on any airs or try to go crazy on production. It was just simple, honest, God’s truth. So that whole record was very heartfelt. Just inspiring. You end up in a vehicle driving down a dark road at night listening to those songs, it hits you where it’s supposed to.”
Jackson’s gospel album had such a profound effect on Turner, he had to put it out of his mind when making I Serve a Savior.
“It was kind of weird, because I didn’t want to psych myself out and say, ‘It’s got to be as good as Alan’s or whatever,’” Turner says. “I also knew that I couldn’t just cut a record like he did where it was just piano, organ, acoustic guitar and a few background vocals. I had to do something different, so I went back to my old approach that I’ve been using since day one when I got signed, which is let the songs make the record.”
As a result of taking things on a song-by-song basis, Turner infused I Serve a Savior with plenty of piano, dobro, fiddle and steel. There’s also some Waylon Jennings-style electric guitar popping up on the second half of “Amazing Grace,” which gives it a surprising Seventies outlaw-country feel.
“I didn’t know what people were going to think when they heard this,” Turner says, laughing. “Maybe they’re thinking I’m being sacrilegious or something.”
But in the backstage halls of the Ryman Auditorium, where Turner got his big break by singing a gospel song and where, later, he’ll mix gospel and secular songs for an excited crowd, Turner isn’t remotely sacrilegious — on the contrary, he’s just carrying on one of country music’s oldest traditions.