Album Review – Turnpike Troubadours (Self-Titled)

Photo: Justin Voight

Some will tell you country music must evolve, must adapt to survive and stay relevant in the current cultural climate. Left and right we see country acts we once thought to be insulated from the winds of change, if not shelters against them, rushing to incorporate electronic drums, synthesizers, other inorganic accouterments, or shopping list dirges of tailgate scenes into their music after being counseled on how this is what you need to keep the music scintillating to the modern ear. Even some of the primary names in the Texas and Red Dirt scenes have backslid into this predictable role.

And then here’s the Turnpike Troubadours, years junior to many of the other big names from the Oklahoma music circuit, starting off their new, self-titled album—the first in over three years—with a five-minute waltz built upon the rake of the fiddle.

The beauty of country music has always been its ability to remain a steadfast compass point in an tempestuous world. No matter what else is going on, you can count on country being there. It’s a rock. This is where country’s beauty and sway over the human spirit emanates from. And yet this is what’s lost on the many who seem to think country’s future is in shying away from this indomitable aspect of the music.

However, you go to a Turnpike Troubadours show, and it’s a different story. It’s not filled with 40 and 50-something divorcee boot scooters. It’s not about country punks or leather-clad Outlaws. You’ll see all those elements intermixed in the crowd for sure, standing on the periphery, shuffling around in the crowded room. But mostly this is a younger crowd. Many of the boys are clean cut, and the girls are pretty. There may be some country fried frat boys, but these aren’t bros. The Turnpike Troubadours are hip, and country.

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There’s not much to complain about with the Turnpike Troubadours, but one concern is the amount of recorded output during their eight-year stretch. Their 2012 record Goodbye Normal Street had the independent and Texas country world agog, and it felt like if they only had the alacrity to turn around a year or so later and release another, similar to how Sturgill Simpson sling shot himself to the top, the Turnpike Troubadours could be on top of the world.

the-turnpike-troubadoursAs it is, the momentum ebbed some time a while back, and the songs became a little tired. But frontman and primary songwriter Evan Felker is not going to force the issue, and he’s certainly not going to make a living primarily singing the songs of others. If it takes three years to cut a record, it takes three years to cut a record. If they even have to take two old songs to fill out a 12-song track list, which they do by re-recording “Bossier City” and “Easton & Main” from the band’s first record, then so be it. You don’t get lines like “You bet your heart on a diamond and I played the clubs in spades” without letting the inspiration behind a song come to you, instead of forcing it out based on an arbitrary timeline. These guys have already overshot any expectations allotted to them when they started out, so why try shoot for the moon now, and risk losing the mojo?

That’s the thing about the Turnpike Troubadours: they’ve exuded a patience and steadiness that has put them steadfastly in touch with the underlying spirit of country music. If they wanted to pivot just slightly and go some big rock route, they could blow up huge. But they didn’t and they don’t . . . and they still blew up huge. This isn’t old country. This is new country, only the roots are still attached, and the branches fan out wide.

You can look at The Turnpike Troubadours as an ass kicking live band, or you can look at them as a band behind a singer songwriter that happens to have some ass kicking songs. Their melodies could rise a little bit more. They could shorten some of their songs, or contemporize the instrumentation. This is surely what they would hear if they sailed their ship for Nashville looking for a larger slice. But they refuse to tinker with what has led them here. You get the sense they would rather quit than let down their long-term fans, or themselves. It’s still the same guys, and mostly the same sound. They remain the Turnpike Troubadours. And their destiny and prospects are better off for it.

The success of the Troubadours has taken them all around North America, but their music still remains firmly grounded in the dirt of Oklahoma, maybe more so than ever in their new, self-titled album. Their home is where the inspiration for their songs springs from, where Tulsa feels like the big city, full of all the trappings and broken promises of the modern world, and Bossier might as well be a universe away. And yet the perspective is worldly, the sentiments universal, and the message intelligent and enriching.

The Turnpike Troubadours know what they do very well. They take Felker’s songs, they watch what the crowd reacts to and they emphasize that. Their melodies are in no way obvious, but they grow on you. You can regard them as a fun band to go watch on a Saturday night, or the home of one of this generation’s leading songwriters. Or if you’re wise, you do both.

Their new, self-titled album may not have the big, signature songs of their previous efforts like “7 & 7,” “Every Girl,” or “Long Hot Summer Day.” But it’s probably their most consistent with quality cover to cover. Guitarist Ryan Engleman‘s growth is greatly noticed, as his confidence with the steel guitar adds a new wrinkle to the band’s sound, while his lead licks on the Telecaster growl more than ever, yet remain within the realm of the Troubadours’ sound.

From the gentle moments of the acoustic “A Little Song,” to the odes to wild women like “The Mercury,” to the stories of “The Bird Hunters” and “7 Oaks,” the Turnpike Troubadours paint the picture of a simple man trying to grasp the complexities and people of a world lost in the allure of its own reflection, while he does his best to remain grounded in the values of himself and his home. Not a bad parallel for the plights and perils of country music.

In today’s country, Alabama may run off an record Bro-Country song, Zac Brown may decide he wants to be an EDM star, Sturgill Simpson may include synthesizers in his next album. But the Turnpike Troubadours remain steadfast, and a reason to celebrate the present, hope for the future, and hold fond memories for the past.

Two Guns Up (9/10).

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Bassist R.C. Edwards wrote the songs “Fall Out of Love,” “Easton and Main,” and “7 Oaks.”

“Doreen” is a cover from The Old 97’s.

All other tracks were written or co-written by Evan Felker.

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