“Long Black Train”
Written by Josh Turner
When Josh Turner stepped onto the Grand Ole Opry stage in December 2001, he was relatively unknown. All that needed to be known then, however, was that unmistakable, deep baritone and the song Turner was slated to perform, “Long Black Train.”
Influenced by church music and acts like Johnny Cash, the Stanley Brothers, and Randy Travis while growing up in rural South Carolina, Turner would find his greatest inspiration for a song in the unlikeliest of places – his college university’s library.
While studying at Belmont University in 2000, Turner one day found himself listening to a complete boxed set of Hank Williams songs that Mercury had just released, resorting himself to a cubbyhole to listen, given that he didn’t have the money to buy it.
The boxed set featured Williams music never heard before, and Turner found himself immersed within it, inspired to break down the music to its rawest form. Perhaps there’s an irony to growing up inspired by those aforementioned acts who found salvation, but finding a rare strength in a soul that never did.
As Turner returned home, he had a vision of a wide open place in the plains with a train track running straight down the middle of the fields. In that vision, people stood around the track as a long, shiny black train came rolling down, questioning whether or not to get on it. The struggle, to him, came in questioning whether the journey might just lead to nowhere or if the thrill was in the ride itself. He didn’t know then what it all meant, but he later saw it as a metaphor for temptation. Turner wrote three verses and a chorus while strumming a B flat chord that night before going to bed. At 11:00 the next morning, he wrote the fourth and final verse.
Was it finished, though? Would anyone understand the metaphor? Was it too old-fashioned for country radio? Would anyone want to hear it?
As it turns out, people did want to hear it – first when Turner’s friend walked into the room and asked what he was doing, to which Turner played him the song, and then when a snowball effect took hold and Turner started playing it at showcases and writers’ nights. One of those performances also included one for a class, where one of his classmates just so happened to be interning with a publishing company owned by Jody Williams. Before long, Williams heard it, wanted to sign Turner to a production deal, took him to MCA, and played them a few songs. Before long, Turner had his first record deal.
“Long Black Train,” however, is about more than just the people Turner had envisioned. Indeed, a part of him felt the uneasy sway that song’s magnetism held. His stay at Belmont marked his first time away from home, and now he was chasing a dream he wasn’t sure would work out. Ultimately, as the song’s popularity grew, Turner understood its meaning took on an individualistic form for everyone, from a fan whose sister suffered from a drug addiction, to one whose brother suffered from alcoholism, to even one ready to end her life until she heard the song.
I repeat: people wanted to hear it. In a way, it’s not a question of whether or not to ride on that long black train, but rather, discover which one you’re already on.
Back to the beginning, when Turner played the aforementioned Opry show, “Long Black Train” was all he had. He played with the Opry staff band because he didn’t have one of his own, and he only knew one song – turns out it was enough.
As Turner walked to return to his dressing room, Bill Anderson, the night’s host for that segment, asked if the crowd wanted an encore. Awkward in any other scenario, but the audience didn’t mind hearing “Long Black Train” one more time. As Turner performed it a second time, he realized he was performing on the same stage as Hank Williams once did, making it hard to finish the song again. Turner joined the Opry as an official member in 2007, and “Long Black Train” kept rolling to become his classic mark on the genre.
A classic song and a classic singer.
When the song came out I wondered if radio would play it at all since the song is religious in nature and Turner isn’t the soprano that so many of the male singers of the time had become. Radio did play it and even today I frequently hear the song on oldies or classic country shows.
Josh Turner hasn’t become quite as big a star as his talent warranted but he has persevered.
It’s interesting to me to learn that Josh Turner conceived this classic song after listening to a boxed set of Hank Williams recordings, as I’ve always found it vaguely reminiscent of Williams’ “Lost Highway.”
Thank you, Doug. I had the same thought regarding “Lost Highway,” too!
I’m also reminded of “Lost Highway.” But I also have to say that, as great as this song is, it’ll never compare to “Your Man.”