“The Train, the Drink and the Dawn” by Kill County | Music Exam

photo by Jon Augustine

Josh James will tell you the truth. He will sing about his darkest days, and you'll feel the closure his songs in Kill County has given him.

There's one story in particular, that of a good friend, a man who lived a nomadic life, hopping on and off trains. It's a story about a friend who would take his own life. It would take the songwriter more than a few tries to come to terms with his friend's death, a few songs written here and there until he found some peace in "The Train, the Drink and the Dawn."

Read on and follow along with the song further below to hear how this song, with roots in Lincoln, Neb., came to life to help ease the memory of a friend lost.

Hear Nebraska: Is the song mostly a true story or fictional?

Josh James: It’s a true story.

HN: Could you talk about what went into it?

JJ: Yeah, man. It’s about a really good friend of mine that passed away a few years ago. I used to live with Brad (Kindler, Kill County drummer), Ringo (Kill County banjo player, vocalist) and all those guys. We had a house together, and I was probably 21. We lived next to the train tracks over in the North Bottoms. One day, this train rolled through and stopped, and this guy got off and came up to the house. It was the dead of winter, and he ended up staying with us for about a week.

Then for two or three years after that, he’d show up for three or four months, just rolled through town. We got to be really good friends, wrote a lot of letters back and forth and hung out quite a bit. He ended up passing away in 2006. There were a few different songs that I wrote about him. That was the one that really stuck. But yeah, it’s a true story, not autobiographical. It’s about him.

HN: What were the other songs you wrote about him, and were they ever recorded?

JJ: None of them ended up being Kill County songs. There’s probably some old four-track recordings around. Half of them I never really named. When he died, it was a pretty hard experience for me at the time. I think there was quite a few songs I wrote to cope with it at the time and “The Train, the Drink and the Dawn,” that one just ended up sticking and felt right.

That was the last song I wrote about him. The ones before that didn’t really explain or do justice to him. That one ended up being the one I kept.

photo by Angie Norman

HN: What about your friend’s personality and your relationship with him made you want to put these feelings into a song?

JJ: I’m not sure. I think the time and the place when we met, I was living with all those guys, didn’t know what I wanted to be doing. I was probably a bit unhappy, playing in punk rock bands, partying and stuff. I hadn’t moved away from town yet. I’d been living in Lincoln pretty much my whole life. 

I think he embodied this other life that I wanted. He was a transient, spent most of his time homeless as a train hopper. That nomadic existence appealed to me at the time. And our personalities, we got along really well. He was one of those people you meet that becomes real close to you real quick. He was incredibly open and honest, and we just hit it off pretty well.

But like I said, I think the life he had, which in the end is kind of what did him in, at the time for me was something that I wanted, that nomadic transient sort of existence. And so, I think was drawn to him because of that also.

And the events leading up to when he passed away were pretty intense and tragic. Most of the song is about the end, his last few days. So I think the gravity of the situation is what made me write that song. Something had to come out.

HN: It starts with a minor chord, but the song isn’t necessarily minor or major throughout. At the end, though, you stay on the major. Is there a reason for that? Maybe to illustrate the coming to terms with everything?

JJ: Totally. That’s exactly what it was. Yeah, I appreciate you noticing that. I think the ones I’d written it before, maybe I didn’t keep them because I didn’t really have closure with it, with what had happened. That song, I guess I’ll just… Yeah, he ended up shooting himself. You can probably tell the song is about a suicide.

So he died, and I didn’t have closure with it for a long time. But I do think that writing that major chord at the end was my way of saying goodbye to him, trying to put, I don’t know if you’d call it a positive end, but close with a sort of peace with it. Maybe the end of the song is what that was.

HN: Now, talking about Kill County and your part in it, how would you describe your role and how does it compare to Ringo’s, since you’re the two main songwriters?

JJ: It’s weird because we don’t get to write together. Both of our writing processes are still a bit of a mystery to each other. I don’t even know how he works when he writes because I’ve never really seen him do it. We just send songs back and forth. But as far as our roles in the band, I’ve thought about that a lot. No one’s gotta argue that he’s got a prettier singing voice than me (laughs), which I think works out with the harmonies and the difference in our voices. It makes the music interesting. 

But I don’t know, man. I’d say as far as our workloads, most Kill County albums, it’s about half and half, his songs and my songs. We don’t plan it that way when we’re recording. Whatever we’re interested in working out with the band is what we do. It generally ends up being about half and half.

As far as beyond the writing process, with just the logistics of the band, Ringo does a lot more of the booking shows and more promotional stuff. He works from home, so he has the opportunity to be online a lot more. I’m a carpenter, so I’m not at home that often. But he definitely does a lot more of the PR stuff. I do more of the T-shirts and stuff like that. Unfortunately, us living so far from each other, there’s not as much work to do as we’d like there to be, you know what I mean.

HN: Yeah, for sure. You said you were living with Ringo and Brad when you met your friend in Lincoln, so could you talk about the context comparing that time to when Kill County came into being? You said you hadn’t written songs with Ringo when you lived with him at first.

JJ: Well, when Ringo and I lived together, we didn’t get along very well for the first year we knew each other (laughs). That’s kind of a long story, but we ended up obviously becoming really close. Brad and I used to play in a punk rock band together called Boycaught. I started playing with Brad and Ringo before I moved. We were in the Red Beer Band. We played old union songs and fiddle tunes. I’d been playing some acoustic music for awhile at that point, but not country or folk. I was trying to learn, but playing with those guys was what set me, and I think Ringo, too, on that course.

So we did that, then I moved away to Washington. I came back the next winter, I think, winter 2007. I’d been writing since I moved to Washington because I didn’t really know anybody out there. I came back in the winter time, and we just started playing this one afternoon. He had all these songs I fell in love with. I had a bunch of stuff written. We started working that out. 

photo by Jon Augustine

You know, Kill County to me, half of the music is just in the arrangement and getting to work with Joe and Jon (Augustine, Kill County bassist) and Brad. I say we don’t write together, and with the lyrics and basic structures of the song that’s true. But the end product we put together is meticulous about how to arrange everything. But yeah, then I moved to Alaska and ended up coming back the next winter. We started playing shows more then. Then I moved to Texas, he moved away. Ever since then, it’s just been whenever we can get together, we make a point to, and set up tours and all.

HN: Is there a release date set for the new album?

JJ: They’re getting pressed right now. The vinyl is at the press house. I think the artwork is getting finished this week. I think we’re looking at the middle to the end of February. We haven’t set a date yet. We’re trying to get everything in order. But yeah, we’re going to playing an album release show in April in Lincoln and one in Omaha. We’ll have everything ready to go by then, but the vinyl and all that should be done by the end of February.


capo on third fret

Am – G – F – G
Am – G – F – G
Am – G – C – F – G

                   G                      C                        F
I hail from Maryland, the Yankee son of white trash kin 
               C                                                 G
but as a boy things look fine from the rented house through the broken blinds 
Am                  G                      C                            F
Daddy was a welder till the union broke and momma fell ill 
                      C                                 G                                         F
So I signed on as a man to be a poor boy in a poor land 

        Am                         G                                C                                           F
The G I checks never came through, you give them four years and all the give you 
                         C                                                              G
Is a few dead friends, a few good lies, a thousand yards for your eyes. 
                 Am                        G                  C                 F
till you're broke down in a train yard, I never was bound to get far
                       C                             G
Hey Lincoln Nebraska, I could use a friend right now. 

                               F                                                       Am
Because there's blood lines, Amphetamines and whiskey 
                      C                                                           F
And there's sweat and there's iron, and there's pills please 
              Am                                              C
There's dark dreams of days that lay beyond 
            G                                         F
All the trains, the drink, and the dawn 

         Am                             G                              C                                     F
Well friend please don't blame me none, a man in my shoes was bound to run 
                      C                              G
To any train yard or rail line, a forty five or cheap wine. 
          Am                    G                                      C                             F
And I can't build no home you know at her brother's house in Ohio 
But I could use a friend right now. 

                               F                                                       Am
Because there's blood lines, Amphetamines and whiskey 
                      C                                                           F
And there's tears and there's iron, and there's pills please 
              Am                                              C
There's dark dreams of days that lay beyond 
            G                                         F            G
All the trains, the drink, and the dawn 

Am                  G                              C                                                      F
The sun was shinin'. And in the morning light I saw the Autumn dying 
Am                                        G               C                                                           F
Knowing, that winter was coming, I knew right then I could never see another one. 
                       Am                                          G                C                                                              F
There was a little black train just rolling bye, and I ran her down and caught her on the fly. 
                Am                  G                 C            F
So good bye, fair thee well, good bye. 

C – F

Well if you know the way I roll, then you'll know the way I'll go. 
                                                                             G – C
And friend don't blame the gun, there's no need to mourn me none. 
There's little birds and pretty things, and a better man he might find change. 
                                 G – C
But as for me, just bury me beneath, the cedars and the pine, the sun and all her shine, 
                                                        G                                C
And safe there I'll stay, with the wreckage and the waste, 
               Am                                              C
and the dark dreams of days that lay beyond 
            G                                         F         C   
All the trains, the drink, and the dawn

Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. He originally wanted to play this song at Take Cover last weekend, but chose another to let Manny Coon play the Kill County tune of the night. Reach Michael at michaeltodd@hearnebraska.org.