Peaking at No. 13 on Billboard’s country chart back in 2003, Josh Turner’s career-defining “Long Black Train” remains one of his most enduring hits.
Its spiritual message and traditional country flavor have stood the passing of the years, and Turner’s devoted fans still wait with anticipation at his performances, knowing the “Long Black Train” is just around the bend.
While the song seemed to show this bass-singing South Carolina native as a clean-cut country purist, not everyone appreciated his message at first.
“It’s funny because it stirred up so much controversy,” Turner told CMT.com. “Especially when the video came out, they were blasting me like, ‘Man, he’s encouraging teen suicide by standing on the railroad tracks!’”
Thankfully, those unfounded accusations have long faded. But the song’s popularity carries on.
Looking back during an interview with CMT.com, Turner spoke about “Long Black Train” and the sense of destiny that surrounds it.
CMT.com: How did writing “Long Black Train” have an impact on your life?
Turner: That song changed my life in a lot of different ways. It was the song that helped me get my publishing deal and my production deal. I went to MCA, played three songs for them, and one was “Long Black Train.” It was the only label I had played for, and two weeks later, they signed me to a record deal. A month after that, I played at the Grand Ole Opry and got two standing ovations and an encore.
My first single [“She’ll Go on You”] died, and then “Long Black Train” followed it and became the longest-played single on the charts at that time. It became my first hit and then became a platinum-selling record and my signature song. I could go on and on about it. The royalties from it helped me buy my first house. It was a pretty good deal.
It’s amazing that one song can do that. Had the song been around for a while before you took it to MCA?
I don’t know the exact date I wrote it, but I’m pretty sure it was back in 1999 when I was at Belmont University. I ended up playing it for my junior and senior recitals, and I had done at least one demo of it.
Was there any thought to shopping that song around for other artists?
In my mind, it was not an option. When I moved to town, I did consider myself a songwriter but not a songwriter who said, “I’m going to go around writing songs and cut what I want, and then the rest can go out to whomever.” That was not my mode of operation. I wanted to save all the songs for myself.
Funny story. … My first publisher, Jody Williams, who is now at BMI and still a good friend of mine, calls me one day when I came home to South Carolina to visit some family, and he says “Man, I got some great news.”
I said, “OK, lay it on me.”
He goes, “I just got ‘Long Black Train’ put on hold for Alan Jackson!” And it got quiet, and he was like, “Josh, are you still there?”
I was like, “Yeah, I am here.”
And he’s like, “Isn’t that great?”
I was like, “No, that is not great.”
And he’s like, “What do you mean?”
And I said, “That song is for me, and I need you to go take it off hold.”
He was like, “Are you serious?”
And I was like, “Yeah, I’m dead serious.” I said, “I didn’t write that song for anybody else. That’s my song.” I kind of busted his bubble.
Yeah, that’s a pretty bold move.
Had I not done that, I never would have experienced all the stuff I rattled off to you.
Looking back now, do you remember what message you intended when you first put pen to paper?
Honestly, I just wanted to paint the picture of the vision I had had. I spent a few hours over at the music library at Belmont listening to all these non-released recordings of Hank Williams. … Walking back to my apartment that night, I was still back in that time. I had this vision of this long, black, beautiful train in the middle of nowhere, and I could see people off to the side, and they were caught up on this decision of, “Do we ride it or stand our ground and not get on it?”
Deep in their gut, they were concerned about this train and, sure enough, it leads to nowhere. When I got back to my apartment, it dawned on me that this train is a physical metaphor for temptation — kind of a heavy song. … When I finished, I was like, “Nobody is ever going to want to hear this song. It’s too old-timey and old-fashioned.”
Has its meaning changed for you over the years?
The thing that means the most to me is not that they only like the song but that it helps people. It has changed peoples’ lives and, in some instances, has saved peoples’ lives. I am very flattered and humbled by that … to think a song I wrote by myself in my apartment in college is having that huge of a difference in the lives of the people in this country and world. It’s amazing because God had his hand on that song and still does and is still using it for a lot of good things.