In August 2001, South Carolina native Josh Turner graduated from Nashville’s Belmont University with a Bachelor of Music degree. The singer, who was already earning praise for his rumbling baritone voice – often favorably compared to Randy Travis’s voice – was already on the fast track to country stardom and made the journey on a ghostly “Long Black Train.” Fifteen years ago today, the song made a very auspicious, career-defining debut.
Turner literally envisioned the song one night around 1999 after poring over a series of unreleased Hank Williams recordings at Belmont’s music library. The sight of the train – and the idea that the train was a metaphor for devilish temptation, came to him on the way back to his apartment that night. Turner was concerned, however, that the dark theme and heavy lyrics wouldn’t resonate with audiences. It wouldn’t take long for him to discover he needn’t have worried.
One of three songs he played for executives at MCA Records, Turner secured a deal with the label two weeks later. One month after that, on December 21st, 2001, just four months after Turner’s graduation, he made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry performing the song on stage at downtown Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, where the radio show often emanates from in the winter months. Turner was rewarded with two standing ovations and an encore. When his debut LP was released in October 2003, it bore the title of that song, but another track from the record was issued as the first single, stalling just inside the Top Fifty. When “Long Black Train” was released, the song only climbed into the Top Fifteen – perhaps a reflection of country radio’s reluctance to program a gospel-inspired tune. But the song, which would go on to sell more than one million copies, has touched countless lives with its redemptive message.
Ironically, Turner nearly lost the song to another artist when his music publisher informed him he had the song put on hold to record by superstar Alan Jackson. In a surprise move, Turner insisted that the publisher get the song taken off hold because he didn’t want anyone else releasing it before he could.
The song, and its subsequent music video, did, however, have one very vocal detractor. In October 2003, Operation Lifesaver, an organization dedicated to rail safety, called for CMT and GAC to stop playing the clip.
“While Turner’s song speaks of redemption, we are deeply concerned that the video for ‘Long Black Train’ showing vulnerable people on the tracks – such as an alcoholic, a pregnant teen, and a gambler – may unwittingly serve as an invitation to suicide on the rail,” Operation Lifesaver President Gerri Hall said in a press release. Their request, however, was not granted.
Turner was officially inducted into the Grand Ole Opry by Vince Gill on October 27th, 2007, performing his then-current single, “Firecracker,” and “Long Black Train.” He has since performed it on the Opry stage many times, including in the above clip from 2008, and continues to acknowledge the impact the song has had not only for him but also for others.
“It has changed peoples’ lives and, in some instances, has saved peoples’ lives. I am very flattered and humbled by that,” Turner told CMT in 2014.