Wholesome, commercially viable and artistically relevant, Josh Turner is an ideal entertainer for a benefit concert. The Medicine Cabinet's savvy decision to feature Turner at its fundraiser paid dividends Thursday at the Uptown Theater.
The organization provides emergency medical assistance in the Kansas City area. Not only did Turner attract a capacity audience of about 2,000 to the fourth annual KC Tip-Off function, the star's performance demonstrated why he's one of contemporary country's most appealing artists.
"Long Black Train," the title track to Turner's 2003 debut album, encapsulates the star's unique qualities. The song's candid expression of faith, obvious fidelity to the country tradition and resonant vocal work separate Turner from most of today's country hit-makers. The genre's charts are dominated by antiseptic crossover acts with styles that are far removed from the music's roots. Turner will never be mistaken for a maverick, but his approach contains more traditional country sounds than most anything receiving airplay on today's contemporary country stations.
Turner's twangy 80-minute set was loaded with songs about spiritual salvation and clean living. A riveting rendition of "Long Black Train" sounded like an homage to Johnny Cash's 1950s recordings for Sun Records. Audience favorite "Would You Go With Me" contained the soothing bluegrass approach associated with Alison Krauss. A cover of George Jones' version of the 1956 Johnny Horton hit "I'm a One-Woman Man" revealed where Turner's loyalties lie. Yet he's not a purist. A handful of the 17 songs Turner performed contained pop elements. Not even a fine pedal steel solo could redeem the smarmy light rock of "Lovin' You On My Mind."
Three screens behind the stage displayed live images of Turner and his fine seven-piece band. The first-rate production values provided a welcome distraction. Although Turner, 34, has the good looks of a model, his stoic personality and laconic patter are less than riveting.
Turner's stellar voice easily outshone the special effects. Although he struggled to hit the high notes in "Another Try," the bottom end of his vocal range percolated marvelously. The low rumble was featured to great effect in the coy song of seduction "Your Man" and the celebration of simple living "Everything Is Fine." Even during the song of praise "Me and God," Turner's cavernous bass elicited carnal screams of passion from his female admirers. Their response seemed to make Turner uncomfortable, but the striking dichotomy between spiritual redemption and musical gratification is precisely what's made him a star.