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It's a sunny spring morning in West Nashville, and Josh Turner is standing hesitantly on a railroad track, checking behind him every few seconds and feeling the ground for the vibrations of a coming train.
With the long-playing, runaway success of his debut single, "Long Black Train," it's only natural the photo shoot for this story takes place on the tracks. Since the song debuted on the charts 50 weeks ago, Josh jokes he's sung it "at least a million times."
When Josh wrote "Long Black Train" as a student at Nashville's Belmont College five years ago, he had no way of knowing how it would affect his life and the lives of others. The song uses the image of a long black train as a metaphor for temptation, and warns of the eternal consequences of climbing aboard.
"There are so many neat stories, I don't even know where to start," admits Josh. "I've heard about how it changed the way people handled their lives. I've had a few people say they had contemplated suicide, but after hearing 'Long Black Train' they completely changed their way of thinking. They've turned their life around because of the song. Children from 2 years old to people in their eighties or nineties have responded to this song. I never ever thought it would have this kind of impact."
Josh felt the impact in his own life, too. With the release of "Long Black Train," the Hannah, S.C., native immediately went from struggling singer to breakthrough artist. "First and foremost," he explains, "it fulfilled me as a songwriter. I still consider myself a beginner when it comes to songwriting, because I started when I was 17. That's only nine years, so to have a song that's been well-received by millions of people is just incredible.
"Also, it's changed my life financially. A lot of people don't talk about that, but it has. It's helped me and my wife pay off some debts, like student loans," reveals Josh, who married wife Jennifer almost a year ago. "But it's also raised the awareness of who I am, my artistry and my career. To have that song go up on the country and Christian charts, to see it on CMT and to see that it never gets old - I wrote it back in 1999 and I'm still not tired of it."
Josh's high profile earned him a coveted opening slot on the recent Brooks & Dunn tour, which ended in April. "It was a lot of fun," he declares. "Brooks & Dunn really paved the way for a lot of new artists. They took care of us out on the road, fed us good. They made us fat out there!
"They drew some incredible crowds. It gave me a great opportunity to expose people to me and my music for the first time. Even the people who had heard 'Long Black Train' on the radio, but maybe hadn't bought the album yet, it gave them an inside look as to who I am in person. I try to sign autographs after every show and meet the people, and just get close to them."
Being on the road constantly has made life as a newlywed extra challenging. Josh confesses that even on his days off the road, he's often working. In fact, the day of this photo shoot and interview, the couple was also celebrating their 10-month anniversary - with none of the growing pains associated with the first year of marriage. "It's been real good," notes Josh, smiling as he looks at Jennifer, who's standing a few feet away. "It's hard to believe ten months have gone by.
"Time flies, especially in this business," he continues. "You're out on the road and the next thing you know, another week's gone. But we're best friends. We've been having a lot of fun and trying to adjust to me being away from home a lot. We're trying to work with our schedules and see how much we can get her out on the road with me. It takes some adjustment. We see each other pretty often, probably two or three days a week. But we have to make that effort.
"We've had so many people say, 'If you can get past the first year, you'll be fine' - but we've had a great first year. We haven't had any reservations about it. We're committed to each other and having a lot of fun."
Sometimes Jennifer - who teaches voice and piano lessons at private schools in Nashville - joins her hubby onstage. "The crowds go crazy," beams Josh, "because they see our togetherness and they love that. She doesn't sing with me on every show or every trip, but when I feel like it's appropriate I'll bring her up. She knows the harmony parts on a lot of my songs and she loves being a part of what I do."
After an incredible run, "Long Black Train" is finally pulling into the station. Josh is eager for folks to hear his follow-up single, "What It Ain't."
"It was one of the last songs we recorded for the album," he says. "From the very first time I heard it, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for. It was up-tempo, country and it had energy. I knew it was going to give me a chance, vocally, to show off what I could do. It has a great storyline with some underlying humor. The crowds out on the road have really responded to it in a huge way. It's just a good country song."
It's too early to tell if "What It Ain't" will match the runaway success of his debut single - "Long Black Train" stayed on the Radio & Records chart longer than any other country single in the history of country music. But Josh isn't worried about it - he's too busy counting the blessings from its success.
"I never thought I'd be breaking records this early in my career," he says gratefully.
-- Story by Wendy Newcomer