Country music has always loved trains. Even now, despite the diminished importance of the railroad in modern America, country musicians continue to use the motif of the train, tapping rich layers of symbolism laid down by their predecessors.
Curious? Here are some of the best country songs about trains.
1. “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash
Song year: 1968
In this classic ballad from one of the undisputed all-time greats of the country genre, an inmate of Folsom State Prison aches to ride a passing train to freedom. “Folsom Prison Blues” combines two common themes in country and folk music: imprisonment and trains. The masterpiece is melancholic and chilling.
Cash originally recorded the song in 1955, but it was the 1968 live recording of a performance for an audience of Folsom inmates that topped the charts and won a Grammy.
2. “Steel Rail Blues” by Gordon Lightfoot
Song year: 1967
In “Steel Rail Blues,” Canadian country and folk music legend Gordon Lightfoot spins a tale of homesickness and drunken mistakes. A man stranded far from home, without a dollar to his name, receives a railroad ticket from his loving girlfriend in the mail. But he misses his train home after gambling the ticket away.
Even though the protagonist’s predicament at the end of the song is self-inflicted, almost to the point of comedy, Lightfoot’s gentle, clear voice and plaintive chord progressions convey a sense of genuine yearning with which it’s difficult not to sympathize.
3. “Midnight Special” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Song year: 1969
“The Midnight Special” is an old American folk tune and prison song that turns the light of a midnight train into a symbol of freedom. Creedence Clearwater Revival offered a classic country rock take on the song, based on an arrangement by Lead Belly, on their 1969 album “Willy and the Poor Boys.”
Like most of the songs in this article, Creedence’s twangy cover of “The Midnight Special” features a train-like rhythm. Here, it kicks in behind the first instance of the chorus, lending a sense of momentum to John Fogerty’s pleas for the Midnight Special to shine its liberating light on him.
4. “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten
Song year: 1957
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was a self-taught left-handed guitarist and singer. Their virtuosic finger-picking styles influenced many famous country and folk musicians, including Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan. She wrote the oft-covered “Freight Train” when she was only 12, but more than half a century passed before she first recorded the song in 1957.
“Freight Train” was initially released on Cotten’s first LP in 1957 and later re-issued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1989, two years after her death. Although over a century old, “Freight Train” remains a timeless masterpiece of songwriting. Cotten’s signature finger-picking interweaves a wistful melody with an alternating bass line that imitates the steady chugging of a train.
5. “Wreck of the Old 97” by Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys
Song year: 1963
In 1903, the Southern Railway freight train nicknamed “Old 97” derailed and crashed, killing 11 of the people onboard. The dramatic accident was memorialized in the ballad “The Wreck of the Old 97.”
The inimitable bluegrass band Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys recorded this cover of the song in 1963, and it remains one of the definitive versions. The cheery breakdown one minute in, which acts as a dark punchline to a lyric describing the chief engineer’s gruesome manner of death, is bluegrass excellence in its purest form.
6. “Wabash Cannonball” by Johnny Cash
Song year: 1966
Like many of the songs on this list, “Wabash Cannonball” is a folk song that has been covered many times. The Johnny Cash version is hard to beat, though, with the melody riding effortlessly over that uptempo snap-clack rhythm.
The titular Wabash Cannonball was a real train, but it took its name from the song rather than the other way around.
7. “City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman
Song year: 1971
Arlo Guthrie may have made Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” famous, but Goodman’s country-inflected take on the song shouldn’t be overlooked. His Midwestern-nice-boy tenor lends a sense of understated pathos to lyrics reflecting on the slow death of the American railroad.
This notorious song has been covered by many artists, including:
- Rudi Carrell
- Willie Nelson
- John Denver
But Goodman’s version of this fast-tempo track, with its folk elements, may just be one of the best country songs about trains.
8. “Ghost Trains” by Hank Snow
Song year: 1963
“Ghost Trains” is a delightfully spooky little ditty from one of Canada’s most famous country musicians, Hank Snow. It tells of a supernatural encounter with two famous wrecked trains: the fictional Number Nine from Carson J. Robison’s song “Wreck of the Number Nine” and the Cannonball Express, a real-life wreck made famous by “The Ballad of Casey Jones.”
The steel guitar, an instrument that features prominently in the country music genre, provides the baleful sound of a phantom train whistle.
9. “Starlight on the Rails” by U. Utah Phillips
Song year: 2005
U. Utah Phillips, a country-folk singer, labor organizer, and erstwhile train hopper, sings about the melancholy of a long life spent rambling America in “Starlight on the Rails.” Phillips’ gentle, weathered baritone is accompanied only by a guitar, emphasizing the solitude and alienation captured in his lyrics.
In other songs on this list, trains symbolically stand in for freedom; here, however, the railroad seems to be yet another kind of prison.
10. “Rock Island Line” by Lead Belly
Song year: 1942
Numerous country musicians, including Johnny Cash and Grandpa Jones, have recorded versions of the American folk song “Rock Island Line”; none, however, did it better than country blues giant Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Lead Belly incorporated “Rock Island Line” into his repertoire after he accompanied the musicologist John Lomax to two Arkansas prison farms to record performances of the song by prison work gangs.
In this performance, Lead Belly incorporates percussive hits into his guitar playing to create the sound of a train. As the lyrics tell of the train accelerating away from the station, the song’s tempo likewise accelerates.
11. “Midnight Train to Memphis” by Chris Stapleton
Song year: 2017
Chris Stapleton offers a modern take on the classic country motifs of prison and trains in his 2017 country-rock banger “Midnight Train to Memphis.” Low-riding, bluesy riffs drive relentlessly forward as Stapleton sings about a forty-day prison stay filled with hard labor and sleepless nights spent listening to the titular train pass by.
This song continues many of the themes seen in the above songs but with a rock-inspired twist that makes you want to jam out.
Top Country Songs About Trains, Final Thoughts
Railroad imagery can evoke many different things in country songs: yearning, homesickness, and the pure joy of movement. Sometimes, a train song is just a song about a train or a chance to experiment with sounds associated with the railroad.
This list is by no means comprehensive — there are a lot of other fantastic country songs about train songs out there to discover. Maybe you’ll even write one yourself!