David McClister Josh Turner
Josh Turner was separated from his family 16 days this fall, bouncing from Illinois to Wisconsin, out to California, and up to Montana for work. The "Long Black Train" singer, 44, marked two decades in country music this year, and in that time the two-plus weeks is the longest he'd been apart from his wife Jennifer and sons Hampton, 15, Colby, 12, Marion, 10 and Hawke, 7.
It was harder than he anticipated, and it made him think.
"I was occupied, but there were days where I was homesick," he tells PEOPLE. "It was heart-wrenching. I'm like, 'If I'm struggling this much and after 16 days, I can't even imagine [a military deployment]. How do people survive that?"
Turner broaches that sacrifice in his new Christmas song "Soldier's Gift" from his holiday album King Size Manger out now. The festive collection is an assemblage of traditional country versions of classic Christmas songs with a smattering of Hawaiian, bluegrass and swing. Turner wrote three of the four original tunes and arranged five tracks on the 11-song album. "Soldier's Gift" is the only outside original cut.
David McClister King Size Manager Cover Art
Written by songwriting heavyweights Scooter Carusoe and Tom Douglas, the heartfelt ballad explores soldiers' sacrifices – such as missing Christmas with their families – to ensure Americans are safe.
"It's a humble reminder that we are able to celebrate Christmas freely here in this country because of our men and women in uniform," Turner says of "Soldier's Gift." "I was convicted of the fact that every year throughout my life, I've celebrated Christmas, and I've kind of taken that for granted. I'm honestly baffled that somebody hasn't written this song before."
Christmas music is the fabric of Turner's childhood memories, and he's wanted to make a Christmas album for years. The South Carolina native was determined "King Size Manger" would mimic his most cherished Christmas collection — Randy Travis' "An Old Time Christmas." The idea evolved, and the result is a sonic representation of Turner's favorite types of country music. "Go Tell It On the Mountain" is a harmony-rich recording punctuated by piano and handclaps with the feel of a primitive church service. "Joy to the World" is a swinging interpretation that features Rhonda Vincent, and "Silent Night" is a reverent version defined by Turner's ardent vocal paired with fiddle and acoustic guitar.
Turner penned the title track with his friend Mark Narmore and the singer believes it's among the best songs he's written. He explains that Christmas songs can be about two things — Jesus or Santa. And, most of those songs have been written. When the idea for "King Size Manger" came to him, he felt a great responsibility to write a song worthy of the title.
"I was intimidated," he explained. "When you get a great title like that, the last thing you want to do is write a mediocre song. I feel like it stands on its own, and I love being able to sing it every night. The audience is hanging on every word."
Turner brought his family into the recording studio for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." And in a bid to avoid the loneliness he experienced earlier in the year, he incorporated his wife and sons into his Christmas show and brought them on the road with him. Colby plays twin fiddle on "Joy to the World" while his mom covers Vincent's part. Hawk plays bass, Marion sings, and Hampton is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who plays acoustic guitar, mandolin, ukulele, piano, and more.
"The crowd is just amazed at him as they should be," Turner says proudly. "I've been telling people for a long time; you got to watch out for him 'cause he's coming."
Before Hawk was born, the Turner family often toured together. However, the singer said this is the first time in seven years they tried it – and his boys are a lot bigger than they used to be.
"That bus is a lot smaller than I remember it," Turner said. "That's been a little hairy, but we've made it work, and we're out there making memories."
The 18-city Holiday & the Hits Tour is one of the hardest things Turner said he's done in his career. He had to arrange a new show, find parts for his family and add another trailer to his entourage to haul Christmas decorations. When it snowed on the tour's opening night in Michigan, Turner felt it was a sign they were on the right track.
Turner loves watching his sons on stage every night and is thankful they take some of the attention off him. Judging by crowd reaction, he said, fans are loving the concert, too. As the tour title suggests, he plays a mix of his biggest hits, including "Long Black Train," "Why Don't We Just Dance," and "Hometown Girl." But he wants fans to know how much of himself is on "King Size Manger."
"It was yet another passion project," he says. "There's more of my thumbprint on this record than any other record I've ever done. The majority of the ideas were mine. And, when I talk about how much variety there is on this record, that really kind of speaks to who I am because I love all different kinds of music, as long as it's good."
On paper, Turner's Christmas tour ends Dec. 21 in Knoxville, Tennessee, but he suspects it will last longer. When the break comes, he said he'll be more ready to relax than he's ever been.
"We'll probably be leaving our tree up into January so we can kinda actually enjoy Christmas at home this year," he says.