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Josh Turner's most treasured childhood holiday memories are of listening to Randy Travis' "An Old Time Christmas," as it was the soundtrack to the holiday season in his Hannah, SC home. When Turner set out to record his first Christmas album "King Size Manger," Travis' country Christmas collection was his guidepost.
Turner didn't want a Frank Sinatra horn section or a 100-piece orchestra. He planned to create a timeless country Christmas album he could imagine his family's neighbors listening to in South Carolina. "I just had it ingrained in my mind that you got all this other Christmas music out there in the world, but when it comes to growing up in the country and the lifestyle that comes with a country upbringing 'Randy's record, that's it, you know?'" Turner admitted. "I had just kind of tricked myself into thinking that I need to make volume two."
Turner's "King Size Manger" is his dream realized - and then some. "King Size Manger" is a collection of traditional country versions of classic Christmas songs with some original tunes as well as some Hawaiian, bluegrass and swing sprinkled into the mix. Turner wrote three of the four original songs and arranged five tracks on the 11-song album.
His rich, distinct baritone wraps around each song like a cozy blanket on a snowy morning. Holiday classics including "The First Nowell" (featuring the song's traditional spelling) and "Silent Night, Holy Night" become even more nostalgic and the originals "King Size Manger," "What He’s Given Me," "Soldier's Gift" and "Mele Kalikimaka My 'Ohana" adopt the feel of time-honored Christmas traditions.
"I allowed my heart to come out," Turner said. "Every single one of them, I had a hand in reshaping and recreating because a lot of these songs had been done so many times. Making a Christmas record can be a mighty daunting task for an artist. There are so many songs to choose from and there've been so many versions of those songs throughout history. It can be intimidating to know whether you'll be able to measure up to what's already been done and when I get to that point, I step back and remind myself that I have to do what I hear in my heart. You may be surprised to hear my arrangement on some of these songs that you know so well. We had a lot of fun throwing out all the preconceived notions of what a Christmas record should sound like. In my opinion, it’s about the words and the heart and soul of how a song sounds. You don't need jingle bells on a song to make it a Christmas song."
For two decades, Turner's deep, velvet voice has been the most recognizable on country radio. His unwavering dedication to the tenets of the country genre inspired a generation of country singers and bolstered an underserved segment of the fanbase. For just as long, Turner has been upfront about his dedication to his Christian faith. He released his gospel album "I Serve a Savior" in 2018, after waiting for what felt like the right time between mainstream projects. He was just as intentional with the release of his first full-length Christmas album, which fans have asked for since the beginning of his career. To prepare, he wrote Christmas songs for one year leading up to recording. If planning "King Size Manger" was intimidating because of the volume of Christmas albums available and the number of times many holiday favorites have been recorded, then trying to come up with fresh ideas for an original Christmas song was downright scary.
"You've got Santa Claus, and you got Jesus, and most of those songs have been written," he laughed. "You're kind of up the creek on creative ideas, so I really had to dig down deep and try to find little turns of phrases and clever twists."
When the idea for the song "King Size Manger" popped in his head, Turner said that was intimidating, too. He knew the concept was strong and didn't want to mess it up. Turner took the plot to longtime friend and co-writer Mark Narmore. The men have written hundreds of songs together, yet when Turner shared the idea - Narmore was speechless. "He was like, 'What a title!'" Turner recalled. "He and I have such a rapport and are comfortable enough with each other to allow the heart and soul to come out of a song that we're trying to write. We sat down and knew we needed to just tell the story of what is a king size manger and why is it a king size manger. So, that's what we did."
"King Size Manger," the album's title track, tells the prophecy and story of Jesus' birth powerfully delivered through simple words and amplified by Turner's ardent and honest delivery. The lyrics include:
There in the hills of Bethlehem
No one had any room for them
They knew that child was a real-life changer
Lying there in a king size manger
"I was so proud of it when we finished the song," Turner said. "I was kind of surprised and shocked that we could pull that off." Turner and Nashville-based singer/songwriter Pat McLaughlin were inspired by Ralph Stanley's version of "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" when they wrote the banjo-fronted bluegrass midtempo "What He's Given Me." Turner is the lone writer on the Hawaiian-influenced "Mele Kalikimaka My 'Ohana" (featuring Jake Shimabukuro and Ho'okena), inspired by an anniversary trip taken to the island with Turner's wife, Jennifer. Affirmed by its unique harmonies, ukulele and strum patterns, its sound makes "Mele Kalikimaka My 'Ohana" a standout on "King Size Manger."
Songwriters Travis Hill and Tom Douglas penned "Soldier's Gift," the album's lead single. "I loved what the song says and musically, it's laid back enough to where it grabs your attention, where you really focus on the words. At first, I thought "Where's the song going?" But I just felt there are so many families and so many of our members of our military that could relate to this song. And it fit with all the other songs and added to the variety and subject matter on this record."
Turner dressed up a couple of Christmas favorites with some special guests. Rhonda Vincent joined him on the swinging, twin fiddle-driven "Joy to the World" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the first classic Turner knew had to be on the record because it was always his favorite song, features his wife and four sons.
"I'm sitting in my living room one night just kind of messing around with the song. And all of a sudden, I hear this background vocal part and I thought this is what Jennifer and the boys need to be singing on. So, I called a couple of the boys in and I asked them to sing the part and they did. We went through it and I thought 'yeah, this is it,' so I made a little recording of it on my phone. Then we went into the studio and they did such a great job on all of it," he said of his family. "I'm pretty proud of that one."
The singer wanted to keep his version of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" as primitive as possible and relied only on piano, Hammond B3 organ and a three-person choir for support.