Josh Turner’s fifth album, Punching Bag, opens with a Michael Buffer “Let’s get ready to rumble” introduction of Turner as a country music fighting superstar, leading into the album’s fastest-paced song, the title track. The gist of the song is that he’s a punching bag who you can beat up and he’ll take it. He’ll take every barb, punch, and breakup. But watch it—when you least expect it, he’ll punch you back, just like…a punching bag does? In practical terms, I’m not sure that metaphor works, unless boxers are getting knocked out by more punching bags than I think. It also is the only song on the album that rolls like a freight train, meaning the big opening build-up to a burst of energy is more an anomaly than a true representation of the album, which, like his previous albums, is a mixture of pleasant, melodic love songs and dour heartbreak songs, with a couple of songs about his Christian faith thrown in.
In that wrestling-style introduction, Buffer describes Turner as “the bone-shaking baritone” and mentions his “unmistakable voice”. His deep voice is his trademark, and he uses its deepest side here on the sadder songs, plus on “Deeper Than My Love”, a love song obviously but also almost a gimmick in how it pairs his deep voice with images of depth (submarines, holes to China, etc.) Buffer starts that introduction with, “Ladies and gentlemen, fighting out of the traditional country music corner…”. “Traditional” in this context is like when my local country radio station says they play both kinds of country music; the tradition they’re talking about is less Hank Sr. than Hank Jr. In Turner’s case, it’s more the “traditionalists” of the ‘80s and ‘90s that he’s taking after: Randy Travis, Vince Gill, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and the like. The two songs here where he pushes hardest in the “traditional” direction are “Cold Shoulder” and “Pallbearer”. The first is a hurt-by-his-lover ballad that’s looking towards the George Jones tradition but ends somewhere a little more modern in sensibility. “Pallbearer” recruits Iris DeMent and Marty Stuart for a slow, dark-as-night funerary heartbreak song where he can hit the deepest notes to evoke sorrow and mourning. DeMent’s voice in even the smallest portion can only help to play up the haunted side of the song, while Stuart’s of course on-point playing plays up the folk-music tradition in it.
Those songs sit next to pop songs certain to climb the charts. It’s an approach – maintain your country roots while including enough accessible tunes to ensure a few radio hits – that puts Turner in a similar position as Dierks Bentley and, perhaps, Eric Church, though both have been a lot less timid and more forward-looking about it than Turner, who generally stays between the lines. In other words, when he surprises, it’s not for being daring or eccentric. Still, perhaps for that very reason, Punching Bag is more of a guaranteed commercial success. Its most convincing songs are the amiable, sweet country-pop tunes like the come-on “Watcha Reckon” and the family singalong “Find Me a Baby”, where he declares he wants to “find me a baby / make a couple babies / and sing in harmony”, and his young sons join in on harmony vocals. Even the soft-as-air “Good Problem”, very reminiscent of some of Joe Nichols’ recent hits, is enjoyable fluff that he sings well.
More than the deep sorrow man or the punched-up survivalist, Turner is the good guy of country, and the songs when he’s playing up that side tend to work best. The toothy grin he sports on three of his album covers, including this one, suits his music better than the more serious look he has on the other two. That said, current single “Time is Love,” probably the best song on the album, manages to stay in that good-natured family man mode while carrying in its air the sadder, tougher aspects of life. Its guitar-played melodies, even while reminiscent of ‘80s top 40 hits (and their current reincarnation as the backbone of modern country), has a sadness to it that fits the song’s underlying message that these days time is tight and the world is perennially speeding up. It’s a love song – if time is disappearing, I should spend it with my loved ones – but also an elegy of sorts for leisure time, an argument for work/life balance and a call for actual face time with people over virtual time with them. In its own reactionary way, it may be the most country song here, more country than “Cold Shoulder” and “Pallbearer” even. Yet most listeners—especially those ever longing for modern country music to have more overt nods to the country music of the past – will probably disagree. The song also illustrates the ways a middle path between supposedly competing strains of country can work itself into something more interesting than overt attempts to be one thing or the other.