Riding the Red Dirt: The Talent & Twang of the Turnpike Troubadours

A few years ago I took a drive to Texas. It was a reluctant trip. The destination meant a new life for me. At the time though, I didn’t see it as a genesis. I saw it more as an apocalypse. Such was my mood as I drove a moving van south deep into the heart of Texas.

I don’t remember the radio station it was playing on and I don’t remember the town I was passing through when I first heard the song. I do remember a sign for Welfare, Texas. Yes, there is a town called Welfare, Texas. Sean Hannity needs to look into it.

The tune told the tale of a man reminiscing of his first love and a simpler time, a time “when fun was dominoes and 7Up and Seagrams. Things were simple then, just moving nice and slow.”

The narrator of the song sees his faded flame in a supermarket aisle: “No hello; it’d surely end up awkward. I just turn my shopping cart around and walk away.” The chorus goes: “I had no clue I’d be the boy who your momma warned you about.”

The words spoke to me. You can become the thing you set out not to become. I wasn’t alone. It was magic. When the song faded away, I wished so badly it would play again.

The song, I learned, was “7&7” by the Turnpike Troubadours. My introduction to Lone Star life coincided with my introduction to the music of the Oklahoma band as well as a deep well of incredible melodies that are produced under the banner of Red Dirt music.

My life-long love for country music was augmented by a move to central Texas. The state opened my ears to a brand of music you won’t hear on KYGO in Denver, Colorado.

While most country radio stations around the country are required to play songs by Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan no less than 1,247 times a day, you won’t hear bands like the Turnpike Troubadours (although the band could be classified under the Americana genre). Maybe that’s for the best. They can keep their Big Green Tractors. I’ll just sit back and enjoy a refreshing 7&7.

The Turnpike Troubadours are no strangers to knocking on slamming doors. “When we first started playing, people couldn’t have cared less that we were there,” recalls Troubadours’ frontman Evan Felker. “They were there to drink beer and raise hell, and they didn’t really care what music was playing while they did it. But as we went on and as we got better, they started to listen. I mean, they were still drinkin’ plenty of beer, but before too long, they were actually coming to hear us and asking us to play our songs, and not just covers of traditional favorites and all the other stuff we’d been doing.”

The band’s first album, Bossier City, sounds like it was recorded in a garage. It opens with the lyrics: “I’m learning how to live off nothing. Lord knows I’ve done it before. Late nights and early mornings, waking up on a motel floor.” The whole album makes you feel like you’re riding in an ancient van with a group of dudes just trying to make it in music. Songs like “Rollin On” and “The Shape” echo this.

Sings Felker in “The Shape”: “I’m just a lost cause, a wannabe poet with a cheap guitar begging for applause.” Meanwhile he’s trying to keep a woman in spite of his itinerant lifestyle. “I’ll just keep an eye out towards the sky thinking that maybe you’ll be passing by. Are you still an angel, even with that broken wing?”

“Easton & Main” doesn’t sound like it was made to two-step to. It sounds like two-step was created for “Easton & Main.” The narrator falls in love with a girl at the Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa where he leaves his heart, “soaking up a bourbon stain.”

Felker is a solid frontman and an incredible songwriter. He is anchored by bassist RC Edwards (who will pen a song from time to time). Edwards left his day job as a pharmacist three years ago to devote his time to the band.

Diamonds and Gasoline

On the cover of its second album, Diamonds & Gasoline, is a picture of a dilapidated house that looks like it has been through an Oklahoma twister. That’s the feel of the album, the pressures of life pressing down until all that’s left is a tottering structure. Like “1968” the album is reminiscent “of main street of an old forgotten town.”

From “7&7” to “Leaving & Lonely” and “Diamonds & Gasoline” as well as “Evangeline” the lyrics ooze with heartbreak, the anguish of the road and struggles to grow up.

“Whole Damn Town” chronicles a man’s breakup with a town’s beauty queen: “All the cowboys in this bar and all the fools who play guitar are fully aware that we are through. The whole damn town’s in love with you.”

“The Funeral” follows “a counterfeit James Dean” and “a burned out Betty Page” who travel home for a funeral. The album was released in 2010 and produced by Mike McClure.

Diamonds & Gasoline concludes with “Long Hot Summer Day” a cover of a John Hartford bluegrass tune, which opens with an electrifying fiddle solo and dives into a boot-stomping beat.

Guitarist Ryan Engleman and drummer Gabe Pearson surround Felker and Edwards (Pearson has replaced Giovanni Carnuccio). Of course, if you want to play in Texas you’ve gotta have a fiddle in the band (an Alabama tune the band covered on High Cotton, an Alabama tribute album.) They have a powerful fiddle player in Kyle Nix, whose playing adds a high-octane dynamic to the band.

Felker’s songwriting separates the band from its contemporaries. “All the songs are about people we know,” he says. “And yeah, some of them are probably about me to some degree – the guy who ticks off the wrong girl from Arkansas, and the guy who doesn’t always like what he sees himself becoming. Mostly though, I think they’re just honest.”

The band combines its music with blistering live shows. “We all pretty much grew up with hardcore country music around us,” says Felker. “I mean, sure, there was rock stuff in there, but the real old-school stuff, plus exposure to folks like Jason Boland and Cross Canadian Ragweed, really affected what we were playing. We’re really a product of both our influences and our environment. It wasn’t something that we sat in a room and dreamed up in one day.”

“This time around, we tried to balance things out,” says Edwards. “We wanted to combine the idea of getting something perfect, the way you can only do in a proper studio, with the energy of playing in front of a thousand people jumping around and screaming.”

The band’s most recent release, Goodbye Normal Street, commences with a drum beat leading into a finger-searing banjo that is joined by a driving guitar and a harmonica that tunnels us towards the strong scent of “Gin, Smoke, Lies.”

The band’s third album peaked at #57 on the Billboard charts. “Wrecked,” “Quit While I’m Ahead” and “Gone, Gone, Gone” echo themes set in the band’s previous two albums: the hazards of heartbreak. In “Good Lord Lorrie”: “I’ve been living with the loneliness. It got down in my bones, I guess. It’s just another phase of being free.” “Southeastern Son” and “Blue Star” highlight a soldier’s struggle in war and his homecoming.

“I’m 28 years old now. I was born in ’84. I’m as free as I can be and I won’t ask for any more.” “Before The Devil Knows We’re Dead” may best describe the band’s attitude on life. The Turnpike Troubadours toured exhaustively, building a following in Oklahoma, Texas and now nationally. And in last years’ World Series, St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter walked to the plate with “Long Hot Summer Day” blaring across Busch Stadium.

It may not get recognition on mainstream country radio, but who cares. “This music, at its best, can put into words what we have been thinking for our entire lives,” says Felker, “and even at its worst, it gets people drinking beer and makes people happy. Either of those is fine with me.”

I would imagine the Turnpike Troubadours will just keep playing music, building a fan base, and having a blast doing it. The group will just keep on living, writing, playing and touring, until the devil knows they’re dead.

Turnpike Troubadours Essential Playlist:

“Gin, Smoke, Lies”: You really get a sense of Nix’s talent on this song. A great fiddling tune.

“7&7”: This may be the quintessential breakup song. I know that’s a stretch considering the competition. But few songs really capture the pain of heartbreak as succinctly as it is written in “7&7.” A real breakup doesn’t just disappear over time. It creates a lasting impression on one’s life.

“Good Lord Lorrie”: A great showcase of Felker’s songwriting abilities. The protagonists of his songs always seem to get in his own way. In “Good Lord Lorrie,” he loses a girl because he’s too drunk to stop her from leaving.

“Every Girl”: A great example of the whole band. It is a good combination of all the elements that the band brings to the table.

“Wrecked”: Another solid breakup song. Felker breaks it down so effortlessly. “We built our home out of bed sheets and Styrofoam hoping that the wind might never blow.” Wow, what a great way to describe a relationship that had a good foundation but was built with superficial materials.

“Easton & Main”: A great dancehall song. You feel like you are at Cain’s Ballroom watching a young man try and woo a girl that is way out of his league.

“The Shape”: Once again, Felker shows us that being a traveling musician isn’t all about fun-filled hazy nights. The daylight comes, and often it means a broken heart back home.

“Whole Damn Town”: There is a point in “Whole Damn Town” when Felker bellows “your worn out favorite pair of jeans, I remember everything.” It is one of my favorite moments in music.

“The Funeral”: A light-hearted song about all things, a funeral.

“Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead”: Boot-stomping. Nix’s blazing fiddle on full display.

“Long Hot Summer Day”: It was Gary Allan who said, “To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s what happens on the weekends.” This is a song about “working on the Illinois River…and picking up barges on a long hot summer day.” I think that is what Allan meant.

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