The bulk of the set features familiar hymns that Turner would sing back in the days of his youth while growing up in South Carolina, including "I Saw the Light," which was written by Hank Williams Sr., "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art." One track, "The River (Of Happiness)," was written by Turner's wife Jennifer and eldest son Hampton. It was recorded by the entire Turner family, including Jennifer and all four of their sons.
On the morning of Savior's release, Blackbird Studio in Nashville was bustling with activity, publicists, management types and the like. In a quiet room off to the side, Turner sat down with Billboard to chat about the album, touring and how he balances a career and family.
So, what led to the Savior album becoming a reality?
Honestly, it has been on my mind to do this kind of record for a long time. When fans would ask me when I would do a faith-based album, my stock answer was always like, "It's on my list of things to do," and normally I'd say exactly that. Thing is that I didn't have a solid plan to go after it. As a Christian, from an early age, you know, God called me to be a country singer. That's always been my calling and where my heart is. So, until this point my priority has been to establish myself as a country artist.
And you've clearly done that.
Yeah, I feel like I have, and I know that I still have a lot more to do in the country genre and that realm. But I felt like this was a good time, coming off the heels of a No. 1 album [Deep South] I felt like …
Like that was a good pivot point to pursue this?
Exactly. I felt like it was my time and more importantly, that it was God's time. Honestly, everything just kind of fell into place like I wanted to, and a lot of details that I never saw coming also fell into place. This whole process from start to finish, I mean it's the fastest that I have ever recorded an album. It's actually flown by and has been a really pleasant experience so far.
Tell me about the content on Savior, the classic hymns that you decided to record, along with a couple of your past hits. You've known a lot of the hymns that you included here, since you were a kid, correct?
Yeah, the one song that I had to have on this record was "Without Him," which was written by Mylon LeFevre. I've actually come to know Mylon in the last four years or so.
Anyways, I got to know the song when I was in high school, when I was singing with a gospel quartet that I had started, and it was one of the songs in our repertoire. Of course, I remember a lot of other songs, but this is the one that really spoke to me. It just had a really clear black-and-white message that really hit me. Plus, it was easy to sing and had a great melody. It's a hymn that has always brought me a lot of peace, so I had to have it on this record.
What about the other tracks?
Beyond that, "Amazing Grace" and the other hymns I felt would connect with a lot of gospel music fans and fellow Christians out there. After I knew some of those songs needed to be on the record, I started searching in different places and started looking to see if there were songs from one or two of my favorite country artists that I wanted to do, which would also be appropriate for this record.
The first one that came to mind was Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light." So, when it came time to record it, I first listened to every version of it that I could find. Not to criticize the other versions, they're great in their own ways, but to me there was something missing that hadn't been done, yet needed to be expressed. So one night, I'm lying in bed and, all of a sudden, it just hit me that for the singer in this song to see the light, they would have had to gone through some darkness first. I needed to tap into that element.
Well, Hank certainly had his share of darkness.
He did. And, I love Hank's original version, but I feel like everyone had been trying to emulate what Hank had done. So that night I actually jumped out of bed, grabbed my guitar and my phone. Everyone else in the house was sleeping and I'm trying to be really quiet, which I think helped me tap into that missing factor and the vibe of this song. After that, when thinking about additional songs to add, I thought about "I Serve a Savior," which I wrote a couple of years ago and thought, "Man, this would be perfect for this album." As things progressed, I also wanted it for the album title.
How long ago did you write "Savior?"
Wow, a couple of years ago. So were you writing back then, with the intention of making a Christian record?
No, I honestly had no idea. The thought of doing this album hadn't even come to me yet, and I was still working on my Deep South album at the time. When it came time to actually record "Savior," I wanted it to feel new, but also have the feel of an old-time hymn as well.
Production-wise, can you explain to fans what the difference is sonically between recording this album and a mainstream country record?
That's a loaded question. [Laughs.] Well, in today's mainstream country there's not a ton of the acoustic instruments that I am kind of known for: steel guitar, Dobro, fiddle. We were free to use that sound in recording Savior, for sure. But even when I do my modern country material, I am trying to go for an up to date sound, while not losing that sense of traditionalism.
But admittedly, it's always been a challenge for me to fit into what's going on in the now. I feel like I can do it, however, making music that sounds fresh while still holding onto my own particular style. "Time Is Love" [a No. 2 hit from 2012] is a great example of a modern, current-sounding song that also had acoustic guitar and mandolin all over it. It was a good mesh of sorts of what I do personally and what's being played on country radio.
Same, with "Hometown Girl" [No. 5, 2017], which is one of the more contemporary, progressive songs that I have ever done. Yet, it still has that country lyric, it's telling a story, it's got my voice, steel guitar, yet it sounds pretty fresh in my opinion.
What about the new album? What kind of particular sound were you striving for?
You know, as far as this album goes, for me, when I went into this I wasn't necessarily thinking so much that this has to sound gospel. It was more that I have to express my beliefs, by way of this music, in my own unique way.
Will there be a single off of this album?
I really have no idea [Laughs.] I haven't had that discussion yet.
Are you going to tour behind this album?
Not specifically, but I have already started mixing some of the new tracks in during my live sets and they're going over really well so far.
You've been a member of the Grand Ole Opry for a long time. In fact I heard that you recently made your 150th appearance. Congrats, and what was that like?
Surreal, honestly. I had no idea that they even kept track of that kind of stuff … 150 performances, that's actually hard to wrap my brain around.
You've got a big family: four boys and your wife Jennifer. How do you juggle career and family?
When I figure it out, I'll let you know.
What would you like your fans to take away from the I Serve a Savior album?
I want them to feel some hope and joy that maybe they've never experienced before, even if they don't understand where it's coming from exactly. I'd love for them to seek out that truth, and I'm confident that when they do seek out that truth, that they'll find Jesus.