It Happened in Telluride: Turnpike Troubadours’ Bucket List Moment

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The plan was not to give a play-by-play of the Turnpike Troubadours’ set at the 49th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, but instead give a summation of their performance along with all of the other performers over the weekend in an (upcoming) recap. Turnpike has received ample press lately. But circumstances and the performance they turned in require chronicling.

It was a big week for the Turnpike Troubadours. It started with the band playing the massive Live Nation-backed multi-genre mega fest Bonnaroo in Tennessee on Thursday (6-16), and by all accounts, it was a rousing set. But there’s just some places and events in country and roots music where the stage and setting hold so much more sway, history, and majesty that it means significantly more than than just another gig. It’s not even about the size of the crowd, or the purse it brings in.

“I’m not sure what a bar band from Oklahoma is doing here, but we’re sure glad to be here,” Evan Felker said from the stage. And after witnessing the set Evan and the rest of the boys from Oklahoma turned in, it wasn’t just one of those things you say to butter up the crowd. They felt the moment, and the honor, and rose to it.

Turnpike fiddler Kyle Nix said after the set on social media, “Played Telluride Bluegrass Fest today, and got to meet Sam Bush and Béla Fleck. Bucket list stuff. Wish we could have brought Byron [Berline] with us. He would’ve loved this.”

Byron Berline is the legendary fiddler from Oklahoma who passed away in 2021, and helped shepherd the Turnpike Troubadours through his DoubleStop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie. Kyle Nix later posted a photo of Berline playing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1979, speaking to the history of this event, and how far it goes back, and how it’s intertwined with the Turnpike Troubadours.

Now it was the Turnpike Troubadours’ turn to make some memories and history. It was fair to wonder just how much bleed over in the fandom of Turnpike you would see in the Telluride faithful. However progressive the approach of the festival might be, it is still a bluegrass festival at heart. The music of the Turnpike Troubadours needs a bit of pre-existing knowledge about it to appreciate it fully, because songwriting and the stories are so significant to the gravity of the music, and must be understood and digested. It’s not like a jamgrass outfit that can hit a groove and get most anyone moving.

But the Turnpike Troubadours were well-received, and a good healthy dose of dedicated fans either made their way to Telluride for the day, or were already among the crowd, and were there to sing along to every word, and roar their applause after every song. And it’s not like Turnpike was completely out-of-place. Featuring prominent fiddle, as well as bouts of banjo, accordion, and dobro from Hammerin’ Hank Early, they have solid roots in traditional acoustic instrumentation.

It also happens to be that one of the band’s most popular songs (and the one with the most streams) was penned by John Hartford, who was one of the founders of newgrass, and a regular performer at Telluride during his tenure. Playing “Long Hot Summer Day” on the Telluride stage was definitely one of the “moments” during their set, with Evan Felker making the rare decision to turn it into a crowd call-and-answer singalong. Another was when bass player RC Edwards played “May All Your Favorite Bands Stay Together” by Dawes. When the chorus came around the first time, the crowd erupted, including many in attendance unfamiliar with Turnpike, Dawes, or the song. It’s just such a great universal sentiment.

The Turnpike Troubadours’ set at the Telluride Bluegrass Fest was one of the ages. The band’s first show back after their hiatus at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa in April will always be the one most fondly remembered, and may never be topped in regards to the emotion in the room, and the memories made there. But they were only getting their feet back under them at that time. It was a dress rehearsal. What we saw in Telluride was a band polished, excited, honored, and still hungry. It was the most animated I’ve ever seen Evan Felker, healthy and infinitely happy, and the same goes for the rest of the band, taking in the moment themselves while entertaining the crowd.

And incidentally, the weather in Telluride all week was mostly less than favorable. Thursday was scorching hot, and large portions of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were rainy and cold, though the show always went on. Despite a heavy rain shower right before their set, the clouds parted, and Turnpike might have enjoyed the best weather all weekend.

The Turnpike Troubadours are not taking these moments for granted. They’re not resting on their laurels. They all know the swell of attention they’ve been receiving lately could end or plateau tomorrow, because they lived through that already. They’re playing every gig like their careers depend on it.

The insane demand we saw when they first started announcing reunion shows has started to cool of slightly, like we knew it would. Some of their recently-announced shows in the southeast that are outside of their native region haven’t sold out immediately like we saw previously. But if they keep putting performances together like this, they won’t have any issue filling out venues, and being offered bucket list opportunities, like playing the Telluride stage where mentor Byron Berline, and so many other bluegrass and country greats once held court.

(Mostly) Complete Set List:

1. Every Girl
2. 7&7
3. Good Lord Lorrie
4. Blue Star
5. The Bird Hunters
6. Something to Hold On To
7. A Tornado Warning
8. The Housefire
9. Morgan Street
10. Gin, Smoke, Lies
11. Whole Damn Town
12. Kansas City Southern
13. May All Your Favorite Bands Stay Together (sung by RC Edwards)
14. Long Hot Summer Day
15. 1968
16. Bossier City
17. Long Drive Home

Photos by Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos

Evan Felker, with 10,000 folks and the Telluride mountains reflected in his sunglasses.
Kyle Nix
Ryan Engleman
The hardest man to photograph in country music, Gabriel Pearson.
Hammerin’ Hank Early
RC “Rooster” Edwards

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