Josh Turner opens his MCA Nashville debut disc with what can best be termed a country calling card: a train chugging along a track and three single guitar chords that give way to a picked guitar.
“There’s a long black train comin’ down the line”, he sings in his deep bass baritone, “Feedin’ off souls that are lost and cryin’ / Rails of sin only evil remains / Watch out brother for that long black train”.
Turner’s Long Black Train is a strong debut from a singer who could be one country’s rising stars (the album peaked at 15th on the Billboard country charts and has been certified gold), a good-looking South Carolinian with a crack band and a deep, resonating voice. His debut disc is very much a country roots record, though not in the vein of Dwight Yoakam or the new traditionalists. There is nothing of the cross-genre pollination of Steve Earle of Lyle Lovett of the suburban pop of Garth Brooks; his closest contemporaries seem to be Vince Gill or Marty Stuart. (He lists as influences on the liner notes an array of musicians, covering everything from the blues to opera to old-fashioned country heroes like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Ernest Tubb.) What is most striking, ultimately, about this disc is that, production aside, it sounds as if it could have been issued out of Nashville back in 1969. It is a disc that calls to mind Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, and Conway Twitty.
Long Black Train focuses on what might be called the simple joys—faith, home, love, and just knowing who you are. Turner romanticizes the smaller things, finding his wife in her garden or giving his young daughter a piggyback ride. It is a sentimental worldview, a conservative view that’s been a central trope of country music since the days of Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold.
This sentimental journey, however, requires a delicate musical balance, one that Turner finds on “In My Dreams” and the lovely “Jacksonville”. Both songs are sentimental love songs in the best sense—focused, specific, controlled, borrowing from Jimmy Webb or Charlie Rich, songs that are grounded in the world. The singer in “In My Dreams” dreams of a simple life, “A little sky blue house / Beside a small stream / A front porch, a screen door / The sound of bare feet runnin’ and cartoons”. His desires are uncomplicated, not the grand ambitions of “some men”, not “crossin’ oceans”, “building fortunes” or “havin’ fame”; “the only things / That really matter” to the singer are his beloved’s dreams. “When you smile, I smile / What makes you happy makes me happy, too / In my Dreams, your dreams come true”.
In “Jacksonville”, Turner tells the story of an unexpected romance that starts during a one-week stopover in Florida when the singer meets a woman while “Standin’ in line for a burger and fries”. The song is skeletal in its structure, offering up few details, but held together by a sense of connection: “I can see forever your eyes, your eyes”, he sings.
“Didn’t plan on hangin’ out in Florida / Never was too good at standin’ still / Suddenly it’s lookin’ like I’m gonna / Kill a few more days in Jacksonville”.
On the other slower cuts—“I Had One Time”, “Unburn All Our Bridges”, “She’ll Go on You”, and “The Difference Between a Woman and a Man”—Turner and producers Mark Wright and Frank Rogers lay in a heavy dose of sugary strings, stripping what little subtlety the tunes had, emphasizing their mawkish, syrupy tone.
But on the songs on which Turner and his band—particularly Aubrey Hayne on fiddle, Bryan Sutton on guitar and banjo and Steve Nathan on piano—are let alone to just drive the music, it is clear that Turner has learned the best lessons that his country forebears had to teach. On songs like “What It Ain’t”, a song that explains what love is by telling us “what it ain’t” (“It ain’t layin’ in the dark and wonderin’ why she hasn’t called” or “Drivin’ by her house to find her wrapped up in the arms of your best friend”), or the hard driving “Good Woman Bad”, Turner and his band are in full control turning out a brand of raucous countrified rock and roll.
“You Don’t Mess around with Jim”, the Jim Croce hit, also rocks, but seems too pristine, too perfectly reconstructed. Turner’s deep baritone lacks the easy, almost accidental feeling that Croce brought to it, coming off as overly polite and trained. In Croce’s hands, the song is a big, humorous bit of urban myth; Turner’s version lacks the life that Croce’s easy vocal manner imparts, though it is a musical tour de force.
Ultimately, the title cut is the disc’s best and sets its tone with a consistent, driving rhythm keyed by the opening train sounds and the rhythm section of Shannon Forest on drums and Kevin “Swine” Garrett on upright bass. It is a proudly religious song, almost fiery, defiant—“There is 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”.
Despite its flaws, Long Black Train shows that Turner has a lot of promise and that he’s got a long career ahead of him in country music.