Josh Turner on the 20th Anniversary of “Long Black Train” and the Country Legend Who Wanted to Record it

Josh Turner is encouraging others to seek the truth through the message of his hit, “Long Black Train,” which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Originally released in May 2003, “Long Black Train” set Turner’s career in motion. Turner wrote the faith-based song when he was a student at Belmont University in Nashville and had a strong intuition that the song belonged to him. His instincts led him down a path of success wherein he’s collected a handful of No. 1 songs and is an enduring force in country music.

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“It’s incredible to be able to see the life of the song over the last 20-some years,” Turner shares with American Songwriter. “I have to pinch myself sometimes.” In this Q&A, Turner opens up about the vision that inspired “Long Black Train,” why he wouldn’t let Alan Jackson record it, and how the message of the song is just as timely today.

American Songwriter (AS): I think it’s so interesting that the song started from a vision. Tell me what you remember of that vision and how you turned that into a song.

Josh Turner (JT): The vision for ‘Long Black Train’ is just as vivid today as it was back then. I was a student at Belmont University here in Nashville. I had always been a big Hank Williams fan and knew about Mercury releasing the complete Hank Williams box set and I was too poor to afford it. So when I heard that Belmont had got it on file in the music library, I was the first one in line to go listen to it. I was in this little cubicle late one night with my headphones on listening to the box set and there were so many songs on there that had never been released before. It’s all radio show songs of just Hank and his guitar and in a way, it kind of transported me back in time.

I was walking back to my apartment across campus that night that vision came to me of this wide open space out in the plane somewhere. I could see this train track running right down the middle of this wide open space and there were people standing out to the sides of the track. All of a sudden, this long, black beautiful, shiny train comes roaring down the track and they’re admiring this beautiful train. But deep down they knew that it led nowhere, it lead to hopelessness and despair and emptiness. And so it finally dawned on me that the train was a physical metaphor for temptation. When I realized that, I knew I had something to write about. So I got back to my apartment that night, wrote three verses and a chorus, got up the next morning, and realized it wasn’t finished. So I wrote another verse. And even then, I didn’t think anybody would want to hear it. But I’m glad I was wrong.

AS: Why do you think the vision is still as vivid today as it was 20 years ago?

JT: I think it’s a message that I don’t think will ever go away or fizzle out. I think it’s something that’s just as relevant, if not more relevant, today than it was when I wrote it. I know everybody on this planet wakes up every morning with a choice to make, they can either give into temptation, or they can resist it. And so we all have our own long black train that we’re dealing with. So it’s a choice we make day in and day out, and that never goes away.

AS: What was the story of the message you were trying to convey for the song?

JT: We all have our own long black train. I think in the video, we did a pretty good job of portraying all of those different things that people struggle with whether it’s gambling, alcohol, obesity, drugs or just simply telling the truth. I like to say, I think it’s more relevant today than it was even back then. But we all have those choices that we are allowed to make, and it’s up to us because the train tracks in that song and in that vision and that video represent our path, and those tracks don’t always go in a straight line, they curve, they go up, they go down, sometimes it forks, and it’s up to us to determine the speed and the direction and whether or not we even get on that train. Life can be hard in a lot of ways, but the chorus in the song is the redemptive thread in that because there is a way out.

AS: Talk to me about that journey of watching the song take on this whole new life.

JT: I had that classmate of mine who took it to [publisher] Jody Williams, he wanted to meet me. I had already tried to negotiate a publishing deal with another company in town, so we were in the process of negotiating the deal. I don’t remember why but it fell through, so I was a little disappointed. So the day that happened, I called up my classmate and said, ‘Does Jody still want to meet me?’ And she said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I go in, sit down in Jody’s office, and he starts talking to me about my writing and how much he loved ‘Long Black Train’ and he said, ‘I think that song alone is enough to sign you to a publishing deal. How does $1,500 a month sound?’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ So I started my publishing deal shortly after that.

During that time, I had gone home for spring break. I was at my sister’s softball game and I get a call from Jody and he said, ‘Josh, I got great news. I just got ‘Long Black Train’ put on hold with Alan Jackson. ‘Isn’t that great?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s terrible. You call him back and tell him Alan can’t have that song’ [laughs] And he said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘I’m dead serious. That’s my song. That’s nobody else’s.’ So they had to call and get it taken off hold. Next thing you know I’m playing it on my Grand Ole Opry debut and it’s the title track to my debut album, becomes my first hit, my signature song. It helped me buy my first house. It’s influenced and impacted so many different people throughout my life and career and really taught me how powerful music is and can be.

AS: I remember years ago I was reading about this woman who had a bottle of pills in her hands and was ready to take them and the song just happened to come on and she decided to save her own life. What are some other moving stories that fans have shared with you about the song?

JT: There’s been a lot of stories similar to that. Not everybody has really gone into detail about how that song impacted them. There’s been people who have told me that song saved their life but they didn’t go into as much detail as that woman did. I think because she was the first person to tell me a story like that, I think it was just ingrained in my memory. She was not the last person to tell me a story like that. But I think the significance of her telling me that story was when I realized I wrote that song by myself as a college student, unmarried, in my room by myself. I wasn’t thinking about anybody else. I wasn’t even thinking about a record. But the reason I came to Nashville was to get a record deal and to be a star and to live the glitzy and glamorous lifestyle. When she told me that story, it made me realize, it’s not about the glitz and the glamour. It’s really about saying something that means something and impacting people in a positive way because I have a platform and I can either use it or abuse it.

I don’t like music that makes me feel bad, so I don’t want my fans feeling that way when they come to one of my shows or when they listen to one of my records. When they leave my show, I want them to say, ‘Next time he’s in town, I’ll come back,’ or ‘The next time he puts out a record, I’m gonna go buy it’ because I’ve earned their trust. That’s what I aim to do each and every time I make a record or do a show because there are people listening that I might never meet. 

AS: I know that you mentioned that the song almost feels more relevant, or just as relevant today as it did when it first came out. What makes you say that?

JT: I think there’s a lot of dishonesty and division in today’s world. There are a lot of people who maybe didn’t have a solid upbringing, maybe their head’s spinning and wondering which end is up, and which way is the right way, and they might be confused about things. I think ‘Long Black Train’ speaks to that and allows people to understand that there is truth out there, you just got to seek it.

AS: Why did you want to do a 20th anniversary tour celebrating this song?

JT: Because it’s not just about me, it’s about the fans that have been loyal all these 20-plus years and they supported me through that song and all the songs since and come to the shows, buy the records. If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t be celebrating 20 years of anything in this business, so I have them to thank. I want them to come out and celebrate with me and I make sure that every night I go out on stage, I thank them for their support throughout all the years because they continue to blow me away. I’m continuing to play sold out shows and it’s something I don’t take for granted.

AS: You mentioned that, There’s victory in the Lord, is your favorite line. What does that line mean to you?

JT: It means that there’s a way out. There are a lot of people who think that they can’t escape the bad situation that they’re in or they can’t help the choices that they make, so they need to believe that there is victory to be had, all they have to do is choose to embrace it. That’s true for anybody no matter where you came from or how old you are. That’s a truth that will never change.

Photo by David Abbott / Courtesy UMG

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