Over the last few years, the notoriously gossipy world of the Turnpike Troubadours has in many ways been centered around the sharing of saucy details about broken marriages, frayed friendships, shouting matches and fisticuffs, and salacious headlines spelled out on grocery store checkout rags in a way you absolutely never expected to see from your favorite group of guys from Oklahoma, especially since much of the world summarily ignored them previously.
Headlines promising revelations upon the real reason everything almost went off the rails with Turnpike have been used to lure you in and pony up to pass through paywalls, but this is not the full story, or the most important one of the last six years of the Turnpike Troubadours. The ultimate story is one of triumph. It’s one of the overcoming and vanquishing of demons. It’s one of the perseverance of love and friendship through the hardest of times and the most contentious of moments.
The story of the Turnpike Troubadours is one of a victory, where the better angels of a bunch of friends from Tahlequah, Oklahoma refused to allow some moments of weakness and the outside noise to tear asunder something that time has revealed to be of incredible valuable to country music, ultimately avoiding what has happened to too many important artists and bands in the past, and even coming out on the other side stronger from the tribulations.
The story of the Turnpike Troubadours is also one of forgiveness. It’s the story of never giving up hope in something you love, no matter how dark things may get, or how far away resolution may seem. There may be no music or melody behind it, but the story of the last six years of the Turnpike Troubadours is a beautiful movement of country music all unto itself, encompassing so many of the classic themes that country music often calls upon.
No matter what music is contained in the Turnpike Troubadours’ new album A Cat in the Rain, holding this album in your hand, or having it streaming out of your speakers is a gift you’re likely not to take for granted, because you know it almost never came to be. In the streaming era of music, few if anything matches that anticipation you felt back in the release days of yore as you ripped off the cellophane of a vinyl, or fussed with that little theft prevention sticker that ran across the seam of a CD case. The Turnpike Troubadours have brought that magic of breathless expectation back to the hearts of Red Dirt fans.
A Cat in the Rain wastes no time whatsoever conveying that purifying feeling that only the best Turnpike Troubadours songs can impart. The haunting chorus of voices underpinned by a lone mournful banjo leads you into the opening song “Mean Old Sun,” and you immediately are sated, basking in the warmness that is that assurance that Turnpike is still here and still has it, almost like they never left.
“Mean Old Sun” is about the aftermath of frontman Evan Felker’s disillusioned marriage, then bending one’s self to hard work for absolution, while ultimately coming back out on top by being honest to yourself, and refusing to be counted out. Inspired by his time convalescing on a cattle ranch on the Texas coast before reuniting with his wife, “Mean Old Sun” is a master stroke of Evan Felker poetry.
The opening two songs of A Cat In The Rain are worth the fuss to procure this album even if nothing else is. They constitute the greatest one/two opening punch since “Every Girl” and “7&7” on Turnpike’s debut. “Brought Me” is a chill-inducing multi-genre-inspired song with flairs of Celtic and Cajun influences written with strokes of Old English, constituting a love letter to Turnpike Troubadours fans that stuck it out with them.
When Felker sings, “At an old barroom in Tulsa, I looked up and you were there,” he singing generally about the band’s return at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa on April 8th, 2022. But more specifically he’s singing to you, the Turnpike Troubadours fan, including the grown ass men who were sobbing like babies when they took the Cain’s Ballroom stage, and everyone else who was there in spirit.
Some worry was expressed when Shooter Jennings was announced as the producer for A Cat in the Rain. This came after Sturgill Simpson initially agreed to do the job, but then set up parameters that the band just didn’t feel comfortable moving forward with. With the job Red Dirt legend Mike McClure did on their debut Diamonds and Gasoline, what Wes Sharon did on their subsequent albums, and Shooter’s propensity sometimes to get a little strange, there was some initial apprehension.
But A Cat In The Rain very much feels like a Turnpike Troubadours album. If anything, Shooter’s greatest stroke was making sure the voices of all the Turnpike Troubadours members were represented more than they’ve been in previous works. The album begins with all the band singing in chorus, and that’s also how it ends with all of them taking “Won’t You Give Me One More Chance” out. Together.
Quite a bit happens in between. “The Rut” is a classic Turnpike Troubadours hunting song, maybe not at the level of “The Bird Hunters,” which beat out all others to earn Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year in 2015. But the way Felker weaves the warm feelings of memory that accompanying hunting trips with family and friends into the rhythms of a song is quite intoxicating.
“Chipping Mill” written by bassist R.C. Edwards and songwriter Lance Roark adds a little bit of lightheartedness to what is an otherwise heavy album, including the foreboding “Lucille.” Similar to “Mean Old Sun,” “A Cat In The Rain” feels like a track that is deeply personal to Felker, though the story is a bit more obtuse. Perhaps it’s about another country performer known for opening her heart to stray animals. Perhaps it’s not.
The music is always great, because among other positive attributes, the members of the Turnpike Troubadours are all considered top tier players at their respective positions, whether it’s guitarist Ryan Englemen, drummer Gabriel Pearson, or Kyle Nix on fiddle, who you also hear a bit more in the vocal mix on this album. Having multi-instrumentalist “Hammerin'” Hank Early also gives Turnpike the latitude to being different textures to each song, like their unexpected cover of “Black Sky” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, with Early’s dobro making for a country blues sound we haven’t heard from Turnpike before.
Like “Chippin’ Mill,” the song “East Side Love Song” previously released by Evan Felker solo feels like one that will grow on you over time, and be great live. The album ends with a couple of songs in “Three More Days” written by former Turnpike member John Fullbright about looking forward to the end of a tour, and “Won’t You Give Me One More Chance,” which is an old Lee Clayton song. The last two tracks are relatively straightforward, simple songs compared to Felker’s writing. Taken in it’s entirety though, A Cat In The Rain feels like a quality effort, with no concerns to register about a post hiatus slump.
But one of the most impressive and uncanny attributes of Turnpike Troubadours music is how it tends to grow even better over time. This is a mark of craftsmanship and quality, and one that has graced their music from the very beginning. It’s one of the reasons they entered their hiatus in 2019 as a popular, but regional Red Dirt band, and exited headlining major festivals coast to coast.
The Turnpike Troubadours are one of the premier country music acts of our time. It may take some time for everyone to realize that, but the world is slowly waking up to it. They’ve been playing the long game since the beginning, and a Cat In The Rain falls right in line with the rest of their albums that will be enjoyed fondly in the present tense, and probably even more in the future.
Because the music of the Turnpike Troubadours isn’t just music. It’s so entwined with the memories of fans, it feels elemental to life. We know that now. Hopefully with all the bumps in the road beyond them, we’re never forced to learn that lesson again.
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