48: Long Black Train

48: Long Black Train

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Long Black Train

Story by Josh Turner

Song written by Josh Turner

Recorded by Josh Turner

Sometime back in 2000, I went over to the music library at Belmont University, where I was a student. I got into this little cubbyhole and was listening to the complete boxed set of Hank Williams songs that Mercury had just released. 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.

It was kind of late, and I was sitting there with my headphones on, just immersed in the music. It was as if I had entered another world. Several of the songs were just Hank and his guitar. He was doing radio ads and work mix demo and those kinds of things. A lot of it had never been released before, and it really inspired me. It made me want to break the music down to its rawest form.

As I was walking back to my apartment, which was on the other side of campus, I had a vision of a wide open place in the plains with a train track running straight down the middle of the fields. It was completely dark, but you could see everything around. 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. They were struggling with the decision. As I was seeing all of this in my mind while I was walking, I was wondering what it all meant. It finally dawned on me that this train was a symbol for temptation.

When I got back to my apartment, I picked up my guitar and strummed a B flat chord. I just strummed for what seemed like an eternity, but once the words finally started pouring out, they didn’t seem to want to quit. I wrote three straight verses and a chorus that night and then went to bed. The next morning, I got up and a feeling came over me that this song was not finished, so about 11:00 that morning, I wrote the fourth and final verse. Then I knew it was done. The ironic thing was that I thought to myself, “Nobody is ever going to want to hear this song. It’s too old fashioned. It’s too old-timey. Nobody is really going to get the metaphor.”

I was sitting there playing that song and a friend of mine walked in and said, “What is that?” I told him it was something I had just finished, but I wasn’t sure how good it was. He said, “That’s incredible. You need to play it for so-and-so.” So I went and played it for this person and he said, “You need to put that in your senior recital.” Then it started snowballing. I started playing it at showcases and writers’ nights.

Before long, I did a demo of it there at Belmont and played it in one of my classes. One of my classmates was doing her internship at a publishing company owned by Jody Williams. This girl asked me if she could take it to Jody and, of course, I said “yes.” She came back later and said, “Jody wants to sit down and talk with you.” I called him up and he wanted to sign me to a publishing deal. He signed me to a production deal, he took me to MCA, and we played them a few songs, and the next thing you know I had a record deal, too. And it all happened because of “Long Black Train.”

I was going through a lot personally during that time. It was my first time away from home, I was chasing this dream, and I was in a long distance relationship, so I was going through a lot of different emotions. “Long Black Train” ended up becoming the title track on my first album and I started playing it on the road. The song really related to what I was going through. But when I started coming into contact with fans, I found out that many of them were looking at the song in different ways. They would say, “My brother is going through alcoholism,” or “My sister is going through a drug addiction,” or whatever. So, it dawned on me, “This song is not just for me. This song is for everybody, because everybody has their own weaknesses and their own struggles. Everybody has their own long, black train.”

I went down to Alabama to do a promotional thing for a radio station after the song was released, just an acoustic thing, and a lady pulled me aside after the show. She said, “Josh, I want you to know that I’ve struggled with depression. Just the other day I had a whole bottle of painkillers and I was going to take the whole bottle and end it all. And the radio in my bedroom started playing ‘Long, Black Train.’ When it came on, it distracted me for a moment, and then I started listening to the words, and I realized how selfish I was being.” She said, “That song changed my life. I threw the pills down the toilet and walked away a different person.” She said she was pretty much over her depression. Here I was, this young kid straight out of college, thinking that nobody would even want to hear this song, and here this woman was telling me how it saved her life. It was at that moment that I realized how powerful this song could be.

In November of 2001, I signed my record deal and I played the song on the Opry the Friday before Christmas that year. That time of year, the show moves to the Ryman Auditorium downtown for a few months. I had been signed for about a month. I didn’t have a website; I didn’t have a record out; I didn’t have a video. Nobody had ever heard of me when I walked onto that stage. I was scared to death. I was playing with the Opry staff band because I didn’t even have a band at that time. That was the only song I had learned. Pete Fisher of the Opry agreed to let me go out and sing this one song late in the show. When I sang the song, the crowd just erupted. People were standing up and cheering before I could even finish the song. I was completely overwhelmed.

Then Bill Anderson, who was hosting that segment, said to the crowd, “Do you want to hear some more?” And they got even louder. I made it all the way down the stairs toward my dressing room when I heard Bill say, “Hey Josh, let’s make that train a little bit longer.”

I came back onstage and told him I couldn’t do an encore, because we had only rehearsed one song. So he asked if I would sing it again. I did, but I was really emotional the whole time. What really choked me up, though, was when I looked up into that balcony and it hit me that this was the same balcony that Hank looked up and saw when he played here. I barely got through the song after that.

Long Black Train

There’s a long black train, comin’ down the line,

Feeding off the souls that are lost and cryin’

Rails of sin, only evil remains

Watch out brother for that long black train

Look to the heavens you can look to the sky

You can find redemption starin’ back into your eyes,

There is protection and there’s peace the same

Burn in your ticket for that long black train

CHORUS:

Cause there’s victory in the Lord I say,

Victory in the Lord

Cling to the father and his holy name,

And don’t go ridin’ on that long black train,

There’s an engineer on that long black train,

Makin’ you wonder if your ride is worth the pain,

He’s just a waitin’ on your heart to say

Let me ride on that long black train

CHORUS

Well, I can hear the whistle from a mile away,

It sounds so good but I must stay away,

That train is a beauty, makin’ everybody stare

But its only destination is the middle of nowhere,

CHORUS

Yea watch out brother for that long black train,

That devil’s drivin’ that long black train

More stories from our partners