by: Thomas D. Mooney
“They all want to be Hank Williams,
They don’t want to have to die.”
I’m sitting across a black patio table with an expanded metal surface from Evan Felker. We’re on the back patio of The Blue Light on a Friday night. It’s been a little on the wet side this evening. Downpours and thunderstorms are off in the distance. An hour earlier, Turnpike Troubadours were on the big stage that cut Buddy Holly Ave in half and singing in front of frat cowboys, die-hard fans, summer dress wearing college girls, and drunken musicians looking for a glimpse of greatness and spark of inspiration.
Lone Star tall boys, domestic beer bottles, and used cups litter the now emptying street and sidewalks as patrons make their way towards the bar inside Blue Light or their vehicles parked up and down the Depot.
We’re going back and forth in conversation. It jumps from William Faulkner and Stephen King to poetry to Turnpike’s upcoming music video shoot for “Down Here” and his endearing love for the English language—specifically, idioms. It goes to Juarez by Lubbock’s own Terry Allen. Nothing recorded. Nothing contrived as an interview. Just free-flowing colloquy.
It’s never truly on the topic of songwriting or The Turnpike Troubadours, the five-piece outfit’s fourth album, due out Friday, September 18, but really, it’s all linked in one way or another with Felker.
At the end of the day, he cares about songs–for the sake of the song–and everything else is just relative. Everything else is what fills up the song. The day-to-day, people and characters, heartbreak and hard situations, themes and motifs, and stories and language, they’re all there for the song.
It’s apparent–in appearance, conversation, and in song–that the lanky songwriter is both the common man and an English language elitist. A devout believer in both the evolution and preservation of the English language. That much runs deep within the crevices of each line and phrase on Turnpike Troubadours. It’s idioms and southern colloquialism that Felker spreads. You hear it in his voice as he stomps through the southern gothic world of Turnpike Troubadours. At this point, there’s few who turn a phrase quite like Felker.
It’s not just Felker. By all means, there’s an S at the end of troubadour. The band is believers of this conviction.
There’s an incredible balance that Felker and company pull off. It’s relatable in the most common of ways, yet still prolific and poetic. There’s a grasp of the spoken word that’s seldom matched. Felker speaks through characters the way normal, hard-working, earnest people speak. They aren’t people; they’re folks. Still, there’s eloquent standards that feel Shakespearian at times, without ever feel as though you’re being lectured or listening to something written by a detached highbrow.
While massive chunks of the country and Americana community continue down the path of dumbing down songs for pop radio-centric and apathetic crowds, Turnpike–along with the likes of Jason Isbell, John Fullbright, John Moreland, American Aquarium, and a host of others–remain at the forefront of those who are uncompromisable on the standards of songs. For whatever reason, some continue to double-down on the dumbing down of country music as if the two are mutually exclusive.
Felker and company may present the most relatable world. When listening, you’re stepping into the world they’ve modeled after their own. Where Isbell goes to Northern Alabama and the south, American Aquarium’s BJ Barham steps inside North Carolina, Turnpike Troubadours uses their rural homelands of Oklahoma as their basis. Even four albums in, they’re exploring the old Indian Territory hugging the north of Texas.
Characters and perspectives within their world are so rich and vivid, often their backgrounds and setting become secondary points to the story. It’s something the aforementioned Isbell and Barham too accomplish with their catalog. It’s a cause and effect, two-way street with that setting and character though. While they could be great characters in a vastly different setting, it’s here where the South, West, and Midwest blend where Jimmy, Lorrie, Danny, and Doreen–granted, “Doreen” is an Old 97s song–(and whoever else) all flourish and become rustic, authentic beings.
Perhaps the biggest strength of Turnpike’s songwriting is their use of idioms, new slang, allegory, and metaphor that both sound fresh and timeless. Classic and new. This is where their preservation and expansion of language is most apparent.
The “Long Drive Home” line, “They all want to be Hank Williams, they don’t want to have to die” sounds as if it’s been said by people for a half century when talking about the entitled idiots and pampered shitheads you come across in life. Perhaps it feels so familiar because it’s nestled amongst recognizable sentiments such as “I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if you don’t.”
Lines from “Down Here” (“You can have a nickel out of my last dime”), “Time of Day” (“Give me just a bit of your time of day”), “The Bird Hunters” (“You married that girl, you married her family, you dodged a bullet my friend”), and “Fall Out of Love” (“And I played the clubs in spades”) all have that worn-in comfort that still feels crisp and current. They’re all just clever enough that they resonate with you. But still feel like they’re just out of your own imaginative grasp. You could never write it yourself, even when it hits you in ways all too familiar.
Meta moments happen on “A Little Song,” when Felker says “I’ve found a pretty way to say that I can’t throw it all away.” For nearly a decade now, they’ve has been finding pretty ways to say everything in the human condition.
Like troubadours of the past like Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, and Kris Kristofferson and modern contemporaries like Fullbright, Jonny Burke (two songwriters who have contributions to the album), and Hayes Carll, Turnpike has the ability to be incredibly straightforward and simple one moment, and show bottomless weight and depth the following. They jump and combine the two effortlessly.
As far as The Turnpike Troubadours goes, is their best album to date? You can’t determine that with only a month-and-a-half of listening and intake. Even if it is (or isn’t), does it really matter?
What the 12-track album is though, is a continuation of excellence found on Diamonds & Gasoline and Goodbye Normal Street. At times, they soar higher than they ever have. Songs such as “The Bird Hunters,” “Ringing in the Year,” and “Long Drive Home” all have their moments in the sun that finds the band refined and eclipsing compositions on previous albums.
“Down Here,” “Time of Day,” and “7 Oaks” have that vintage Turnpike Troubadours feel while “Fall Out of Love” and “A Little Song” fill out the album as sincere, sombre deep-cuts that hover above the standard Turnpike has built over the years. Specifically, “Fall Out of Love” finds Felker in one of his most brutally honest pieces–much like “Diamonds & Gasoline” and “Gone Gone Gone” have been in the past for the band.
Throughout, you’re still falling in love with the characters Felker and company have brought to life, melded, and based off folks they’ve encountered and grown up with. Often, it’s glimpses of themselves in the mirror. All these years later, you find them still playing a cast of lovable losers, slighted lovers, anxious loners, and diligent documenters who continuously find themselves in the same sticky situation and self-made messes.
It’s hard to believe that the album will do nothing short of launch them into the larger pond of limelight and exposure. Where Diamonds and Goodbye left you feeling Turnpike was the best kept secret within the Americana and country veins, you can’t help but think Troubadours will be a starting point for many new fans. It may be those infectious fiddle and guitar lines or those singable chorus anthems that pulls them in, but it’ll always be the songs that keep them around.
Last week, we spoke with bassist and songwriter RC Edwards about their upcoming album and the evolution of band’s songwriting and sound. Listen to “The Bird Hunters,” the first track from The Turnpike Troubadours below.
For more on Turnpike Troubadours’ last show in Lubbock with Jason Boland & The Stragglers and Red Shahan, click here.
New Slang: One of the things you’re doing on this new record that you’ve not done in the past is revisit of a few characters within the “Turnpike Troubadours world.” There’s these old characters who are brought back or make cameos elsewhere. Where did that idea originally come from? What made you guys want to experiment with that?
RC Edwards: One of the original conversations I had about it was Kyle [Nix] and I are big Stephen King fans. We were all talking–Evan [Felker] was there in the conversation too–about how Stephen King does this. It’s not even in the most direct way. Most of his stories take place in the same universe. They all come from the same canon. There’s these weird over-lapses where people are family or live in the same town. He kind of created his own universe. Other authors do that too. It’s a really neat idea to try out. In music, you don’t see it that often. From that conversation, we decided to do that. Evan was the one who actually did it, but I don’t want to give him all the credit [Laughs].
NS: Yeah. When I first read something about it, the first person I thought of was William Faulkner and how all of his novels and short stories all take place in this fictional county in Mississippi.
RE: Yeah. And JD Salinger did a lot of that too.
NS: Oh yeah. I haven’t read him in a while, but his does that too.
RE: Yeah. The Glass family. That’s the one Evan was most familiar with. But yeah, it was just about that idea of creating a universe and a canon, if you will, of characters in our songs.
NS: Yeah. It doesn’t really take place in music though–unless you’re talking about the first-person singer-songwriter or a concept album or something. So for you guys, there’s Lorrie who goes from “Good Lord Lorrie” to “The Mercury,” Jimmy from “The Funeral” to “The Mercury,” and Danny from “The Bird Hunters” who also is supposed to be the narrator of “Down Here.” Are there any more obscure ones or ones you guys have decided are connected?
RE: Those are the only ones off the top of my head right now. Hopefully we can do more exploring on future albums though. We’ll have to dig up a few of these old characters and see what they’re up to.
NS: A lot of these characters, they’re established in the real world. There’s an authentic feel to them. You hear their point of view or see their actions and you know someone like them yourself.
RE: Yeah. They’re either one person or composites of friends and family–and ourselves for that matter.
NS: There’s some tragic flaws or horrible circumstances that hit them. Who do you feel is the most tragic of them?
RE: We’re playing the narrator half the time so I’d have to say us. This album though, I think there’s a lot of hope to it. There’s those down moments, but there’s almost always optimism in the end. The guy may be sad, but he’s not whining. He may be down, but he’s not out. I’d say the narrator–us–is the most tragic in most of the stories.
It’s something we always talk about. There’s nothing wrong with a story or a character being sad. But we don’t ever want them to be whiny. Evan doesn’t either. The guy isn’t just going to whine about the situation. He’s going to get up and get back.
NS: Yeah. That’s certainly not a redeeming quality to have. No one likes that teenage angst–unless you’re a teenager or something. Now the song “Long Drive Home” off this new album, I think it could be the best song you guys have written so far. It’s a contender at least. There’s some great lines on the song. Specially, “If loving songs ain’t in your cards, won’t you find another game?” is saying something. There’s a clear message with this song and some relevant commentary on the music business at multiple levels.
RE: Yeah. I think we all relate to that song. First off, Jonny Burke wrote that line. He wrote that verse. If anybody epitomizes that, it’s Jonny. You want to talk about a guy who lives for songs, it’s Jonny Burke. I think we all do. At some point, we all decided to go for it. If we wanted to make money, we’d all go haul hay or build fence or something. If you don’t love it, it ain’t for you. That’s kind of the idea we’ve always had.
NS: Yeah. It’s really such a relevant song for the times. Obviously, there’s the ever-growing divide between what people consider country music. I mean, the line about Hank Williams (“They all want to be Hank Williams, they don’t want to have to die”) feels like something we’ve all been searching to say to describe how some artists act.
RE: That right there, that may be my favorite line from the song. It’s where people want the glory, but not the guts.
NS: Exactly. You guys produced this album yourselves.
RE: Yeah. Ryan [Engleman] kind of took the helm. He’s kind of a has a hand for the studio. We knew what we wanted and how we wanted songs to sound so we figured it’d be better to not just bring another person in to argue with [Laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. This was done all in Northern California, right?
RE: Yeah. It was about an hour north of San Francisco. It was this old chicken farm that these old San Francisco hippies had converted into a recording studio back in the ’70s. We lived on the farm in this little house there. We were out there for four weeks and just played, wrote, and arranged music. It was awesome. It was one of the coolest studio experiences we’ve ever had.
NS: Did you guys do a lot of arranging and the crafting of songs there or was there a lot of pre-production involved in the making of the album?
RE: It was kind of 50/50. We did a good deal of arranging beforehand, but we had a lot of time there, so we did a lot of work there too–or we did a lot of rearranging of songs. We got out there and had these new ideas on some. That “7 Oaks” song, I bet we arranged and played it 10 different ways before finding the one we wanted.
NS: I take it that was the song that could have gone off in the most different of directions.
RE: Totally. It was really a pretty basic song. I’d written the lyrics around a simple melody. We tried it in these different styles. At one point, it was in this Corb Lund style, but realized that it was starting to sound too much like “Good Copenhagen” and had to rearrange it [Laughs]. At the end of the day, we went back to something similar to the original structure. John Fullbright was out there at the time and asked him what he thought about doing some honky-tonk piano on it. After that, we had the idea to turn it into this Tulsa Sound–like Leon Russell did a country song in the ’70s. I’m glad we got a chance to try it out so many ways though. I love way it turned out.
NS: When you’re able to explore a song like that, I’d imagine it can help you make that decision. I know this is the right version just because I know these other nine aren’t.
RE: Totally. Trial and error. When you get that burst of creativity, knowing that you have time to try a bunch of different things and see what works best, it makes all the difference. You may try a different bass line or something and that may spark an idea from the guitar player or something. Everyone feeds off that. Having that freedom helps creativity grow.
NS: Yeah. Did you guys record all 10 versions and all these various outtakes? Can we expect a Bob Dylanesque bootleg series from Turnpike in 20 years or something?
RE: [Laughs]. There may be some scratch tracks from different versions, but I don’t know if there’s really enough to flesh anything out.
NS: Yeah, well I’m just saying, I’m kind of expecting a bootleg series of old demos, alternate takes, and what not in about 15 years [Laughs].
RE: [Laughs]. There is a few things like that. They may come out one day, but not for a while.
NS: You guys are four albums in. Do you guys feel like this album is you guys hitting your stride–not just in sound or lyrical, content, but in collaboration as well?
RE: I think we did. Sound and band wise, that’s really the story behind the name. We’ve finally had the same five guys for three or four years now. We finally got all the right players. This is the Turnpike Troubadours. It was much more collaborative when it came to arranging and ideas. It’s the most work we’ve been able to do where we all sat down. The last albums, it’s us hammering them out quickly in a studio and whoever wrote the song, it was theirs–there wasn’t nearly the team effort that we had with this album.
NS: You guys recut “Easton & Main” and “Bossier City” for this album. In short, why?
RE: Well, Bossier City, I guess we made it where new buyers could get a download of it, but it kind of went away. It’s not the best quality recording. Evan and I are the only ones in the band currently who played on that album. Fullbright is on there. Those songs, they’re still staples of our live shows. They’ve really grown and changed since their original recording on Bossier City. We really wanted a recording of how they are now.
NS: It’s been a while since Bossier City. Do you still relate to those songs in the same way you did when you wrote them or has that changed?
RE: I think those two (“Easton & Main” and “Bossier City”) still hold up the best live, but I still love all those songs. We couldn’t play worth a damn back then [Laughs]. We were just learning how to do everything. I think the songwriting was there–at least the beginning of it. We were just learning how to be a band and how to play. Maybe some day, we’ll break a few others out and re-record them.
NS: You guys are playing these massive shows now. I’ve read where you guys have said you really set out to play in places that were around 250 capacity. Obviously that’s changed. Do you think that’s had an effect on the songwriting? Do you feel like you’ve had to broaden the content of your songs?
RE: I don’t think so. I don’t really think we know how to do it differently. It’s not like we know how to put on an arena rock show. We’ve just had to get used to playing on bigger stages. Sometimes, we’ll get in tight still because it feels too damn weird being so far a part [Laughs]. We’ve grown musically, but I don’t think we’ve ever really changed our core sound. That’s certainly not happened since we’ve gotten the current band together. The new record, I don’t think it’s a new sound. I think it could be a more refined and better version of what we’ve always done.