BEHIND THE LYRICS
The Story Behind Josh Turner's "Long Black Train"
By Randy Rudder
CBN.com Josh Turner was a student at Belmont University in 2000 when he went to the library on campus one evening to listen to the new Hank Williams boxed set.
"Being the poor college student that I was, I didn't have the money to buy it, so I was excited when I saw the library had it on file," Turner says.
As he sat there in the cubicle that evening, a wave of emotions began to wash over him: respect for the purity of the music, but also compassion for Hank and the challenges he faced in his life. "Several of the songs were just Hank and his guitar. A lot of it had never been released before, and it really inspired me," Turner adds.
After listening to all those Hank Williams train songs, a strange thing happened to him on his way home. "As I was walking back to my apartment, I had a vision of a wide open place on the plains, with a train track running straight down the middle of the fields. It was completely dark, but there was a harvest moon that was lighting up the sky. I noticed a bunch of people standing around this track. A long, beautiful, shiny black train came down the track, and the people were trying to decide whether to get on it. Somehow they knew that this train led to nowhere, but they were wondering what it would be like to ride on it."
When he got home, he tried to figure out what his vision meant.
"It finally dawned on me that this train was a symbol for temptation," Turner says, and it wasn't long before he picked up his guitar and began playing. "I hit a B flat chord. I just strummed for what seemed like an eternity, but once the words finally started pouring out, it was like they didn't want to quit."
He wrote three verses and a chorus that night and the last verse the next morning. He says the song also reflected a lot of things that he was going through personally, in his relationships, and trying to find a career focus. But since country music was still leaning toward more pop influences at the time, Tuner thought "Long Black Train" would not be well received by Music Row or radio.
"I thought, 'Nobody is ever going to want to hear this song. It's too old-fashioned. Nobody is really going to get the metaphor.'"
But they did.
Josh played it during one of his classes at Belmont and a classmate who was working for publisher Jody Williams took it to him to hear. That eventually led to a deal with MCA Records and the song became the title cut of Josh's first album in 2001, and the biggest single of his career.
Josh says he is often surprised by how fans interpret the lyrics but is always happy when it speaks to them. When he did a show in Alabama later that year, a woman told him that she had been struggling with depression for years and was considering taking a bottle of painkillers to commit suicide when she heard "Long Black Train" on the radio and changed her mind. "That song changed my life," she told Josh. "I threw the pills down the toilet, and walked away a different person," she said, adding that she had been off anti-depressants for several months.
"I found out that many fans were looking at the song in different ways," Josh says. "They would say, 'my brother is going through alcoholism,' or 'my sister is going through addiction,' or whatever,' Josh says. "It dawned on me that this song is not just for me. The song is for everybody because everybody has their own weaknesses and troubles. Everybody has their own 'Long Black Train.'"
Randy Rudder is a writer/producer with the Nashville office of CBN and also an author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music: The Inspirational Stories behind 101 of Your Favorite Country Songs. For more, go to: www.randyrudder.com.
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