Chris Willman
April 09, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Universal Nashville chairman Luke Lewis is bringing the gold-record party for country upstart Josh Turner to order. ”I’ll try not to cuss, ’cause there’s Christians in the room,” Lewis kids. ”I’m gonna try not to get on that train” — meaning the hell-bound locomotive warned about in Turner’s Southern-gospel-influenced breakout hit, ”Long Black Train.” This isn’t quite an invocation, but there is thankfulness involved. ”We don’t get to do this much anymore,” Lewis adds, a bit ruefully. ”There haven’t been a whole lot of gold records in Nashville lately.”

But there haven’t been many newcomers like Turner, 26, the brightest new hope in a genre that’s been breaking alarmingly few frosh. The S.C. native has a classicist’s approach and just the kind of low, cuttingly clarion baritone that could lead a soul out of the smoking train wreck that is much of modern country.

Yet, as Turner points out, ”sometimes it’s tough to stand out and still fit in.” Maybe it was his distinctive voice, or the dobro, or a spirituality more explicit than the vaguer religiosity that permeates the format. But country radio was this bandwagon’s caboose, till listeners began calling in to demand ”Train,” having seen the video on CMT or one of his 40 ovation-earning Grand Ole Opry appearances. (”Let’s break him via the Opry!” could yet become a marketing-meeting rallying cry.)

His CD’s rowdiest cut, ”What It Ain’t,” is the next single, designed to prove that he does Saturday night as well as Sunday morning. His devil-dissing hit notwithstanding, Turner ”never wanted to be a Christian artist. The beautiful thing about country is how you can incorporate your faith, along with your career and relationships and hobbies, and those humorous songs that Johnny Cash and even Joe Diffie cut…all that is accepted.” It’s a big-tent theory of country that almost calls for some celebratory cussing.

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