Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train” sounds like it’s been around forever — and now that so many gospel and country acts are recording the song, it probably will be. Since it peaked last February at No. 13 on the country charts, at least 16 different acts have secured licenses to record it, and Turner’s publisher suspects that many others may have cut it without seeking a license.
Turner says he wrote the dark, foreboding warning against succumbing to temptation after he had listened to an entire box set of Hank Williams’ recordings. Apparently, the Williams genius rubbed off. The song helped get Turner both his music publishing deal and his contract with MCA Records.
“Everybody was pretty much enthusiastic about the song,” he says. Indeed, MCA thought “Train” was strong enough to serve as the title of Turner’s album as well as the lead single. Released Oct. 14, 2003, the album has now gone “platinum”– meaning that 1 million albums have been shipped to record stores.
“Long Black Train” was nominated for the Country Music Association’s song of the year in 2004 and actually won that award from the Christian Country Music Association. It also earned Turner a songwriter achievement award from the Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Acts that have licensed and/or released recordings of “Long Black Train” include No Turning Back, John Schmid, Tommy Hall and the Sunlighters, Shirley Bradner, Paradise Quartet, Darrell Graef, Gary Douglas, the Wagoneers, Tonic Sol-Fa, L.C., the Cooke Brothers, Lone Mountain Station, Rebel Outlaws of Country, New Fires of Revival, Steve Jeffris and Patti McLead. Given that most of these acts are fairly obscure, Turner isn’t likely to make big money anytime soon from their airplay or record sales. But he is clearly building a steady stream of income that can only increase as more popular performers include it on their albums.
Last June, Big Eye Music released an entire album by various artists — aptly titled A Tribute To Josh Turner — that also features a version of “Long Black Train.” Turner’s music video of the song won him the Christian Country Music Association’s video of the year prize and was recently ranked among CMT’s Top 20 music videos of 2004.
“Not only was the song somewhat inspired by Hank Williams’ music,” Turner tells CMT.com, “but [also by] the first music I ever heard in my life — at my grandmama’s house. She had a lot of Southern gospel groups and quartets and also bluegrass gospel [acts], like the Stanley Brothers and the Osborne Brothers, [plus] a lot of Opry stars and Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. That real earthy, rootsy kind of country music was what I grew up on. It’s kind of cool to see me having written ‘Long Black Train’ and it come completely full circle [with] all these gospel and bluegrass groups covering it.”
While he sidesteps the question of whether “Long Black Train” was his first train song, Turner does stress that it’s “the first good train song I ever wrote.” Despite all the live performances and recorded versions out there, he says he hasn’t yet heard any of them.
Turner says he’s surprised at all the attention “Train” is getting from other artists but admits he’s aware “that people are grabbing onto the song and making it a part of their repertoires” and everyday lives, such as singing it in church.
“[Music publisher] Woody Bomar over at Sony Tree,” Turner continues, “was telling me quite awhile back that he’d gone home for the holidays — he comes from some small town here in Tennessee — and that when he’d go downtown where everybody was hanging out, there would always be a lot of old-timey bluegrass and gospel guys sitting around picking. He said he’d never heard them play anything current until that [last] time he’d gone home — and they were playing ‘Long Black Train.’”
Turner has recorded six songs for his second album and plans to complete the project in February.