The Ongoing Concern for Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours

Big names in country music turned out on Tuesday, May 7th, for a benefit concert for Byron Berline and his Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Opened in 1995 by the famous fiddler who played with Bill Monroe in the 60’s, the shop held Oklahoma’s largest collection of violins, and had been a fixture of the town before it was destroyed in a fire on February 23rd. The sold out benefit was held at the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Guthrie, and was headlined by Larry Gatlin, Vince Gill, Byron Berline and his band, and the Turnpike Troubadours, with proceeds going towards rebuilding the beloved fiddle shop at a new location in Guthrie’s historic downtown.

The 2-hour and 25-minute concert saw many performances, presentations, and collaborations between the different artists, with the Turnpike Troubadours playing a dedicated 4-song set about an hour into the event. The Turnpike Troubadours have been friends of Byron Berline, and supporters of the Double Stop Fiddle Shop for years as a locally-grown band who went on to become one of the biggest acts in independent country music. Tragedy brought all these famous people to a small town to support an independently-owned music shop in central Oklahoma, and the camaraderie in the room and the names that assembled to support a local business made for one of those special moments of community only country music is capable of.

But immediately as the Turnpike Troubadours began to play, long-time fans of the band could tell something was off with frontman Evan Felker. The singer and songwriter struggled to make it through the opening song “The Housefire,” forgetting the words at times, and resting his arms on top of the guitar as opposed to playing. The next two songs, “Gin, Smoke, Lies” and “Good Lord Lorrie” did not fare much better, and the band had to delay beginning “Long Hot Summer Day” as Felker meandered around the stage, seeming not wanting to perform the song.

“Evan is in need of some of serious help,” an attendee posted on Twitter right after the performance. “Watching him tonight at a BENEFIT show was almost hard to watch.”

On Wednesday, May 8th, video of the entire benefit was posted by Guthrie News, and Turnpike Troubadours fans began to seek out the band’s performance from the footage after hearing through the grapevine how bad it was.

“It’s honestly difficult to watch,” said one user on the Turnpike Troubadours Reddit page. “I know Evan has had problems before but I’ve literally never seen a performance this bad. Super weird behavior on stage, not to mention straight up forgetting the lyrics on a lot of songs and slurring his words throughout. Especially right before/during ‘Long Hot Summer Day’…. I really hope he gets the help he needs.”

The Turnpike Troubadours and their frontman Evan Felker haven’t made it easy to be a fan over the last few months, tracing back most recently to October of 2018 when they canceled a performance in Bossier City last minute after the show was scheduled to start and fans had already loaded into the building. Turnpike ended up canceling a string of additional dates shortly afterwards. Then after playing a few more successful shows and everything seeming to be back on track heading into 2019, another show was canceled last minute in Chicago in January, followed with yet another round of multiple cancellations. This was all after canceling the last leg on the Miranda Lambert tour in August of 2018, along with additional shows blamed on Evan Felker kidney stones.

But many, if not most fans have persevered through the tough times, believing the boys will pull through whatever personal issues have been perturbing them. The last couple of months had been drama free with good turnouts to shows, including a mammoth concert at Rodeo Houston where the Turnpike Troubadours drew nearly 67,000 people … And then Tuesday night happened.

Though alcoholism or substance abuse by Evan Felker has long been rumored as the reason for the cancellations, the band itself has played coy with the issue. From the beginning, the band has always tried to remain private, and other members have suffered personal issues that resulted in canceled shows as well. But we’ve all known Evan Felker’s addiction issues have been the primary driver of the problems. BJ Barham of American Aquarium said as much when he spoke on behalf of the band at Mile 0 Fest in late January. Even this bit of insight felt like a formality though. Evan Felker has a problem, and if your a fan of the Turnpike Troubadours, at times that problem has become yours if you’ve been swept up in a cancellation, or seen a bad performance like the one on Tuesday.

Yet despite all the cancellations, footage or even first hand accounts of Evan Felker outright blowing shows has been few and far between. There was the episode at Music Fest back in 2016, and other murmurs about shows where maybe Evan was a little off. But now after the footage from the Byron Berline benefit, we’ve all seen Evan Felker at his worst. There is no mistaking it anymore. Evan Felker has an addiction problem.

The Turnpike Troubadours and their management had every opportunity to broach this subject on their terms, and regularly refused. It’s the same management that seemed to be slow on their toes announcing cancellations, resulting in time and money wasted by fans traveling to performances. Perhaps they could have parleyed the issue into a personal story of recovery for Felker at some point, where the public could relate to Evan Felker’s struggles, be understanding and empathetic, and offer him public support. We’ve seen similar moments from the aforementioned BJ Barham of American Aquarium, or recently with singer and songwriter Dalton Domino who’s also admitted a fight with addiction. Instead, fans were left in the dark, even though they knew what was happening, which only enhanced animosity with the band and their management.

Nonetheless, those witnessing the personal issues of Evan Felker unfold are doing so from the outside of his inner circle, and are in a poor position to place blame on management, publicity, or Felker’s fellow band members for bad decision making, or inaction. Doing so is to completely misunderstand the severity of the issues that addiction can cause, and to have never had a close friend or family member go through a similar struggle. To the public, Evan Felker is an entertainer. For his management and band mates, he’s a close personal friend and family member. Thinking they’re sitting on their hands as this situation unfolds is foolish. Mistakes by Turnpike management have certainly been made in how cancellations and other issues have been handled, but the ultimate blame lands at the feet of Evan Felker’s addiction.

In fact for all the reasons Evan Felker has given for people to abandon him, there has yet to be even one defection from the 6-piece Turnpike Troubadours outfit. Management and booking agents could have dropped them months ago for many reasons as well. Instead, they’ve circled the wagons. As frustrating as it might be from a fan’s perspective that management and publicity seem deaf to the calls for fair explanations for the cancellations, it also speaks to the loyalty and respect that the people surrounding Evan Felker have for him amid incredible drama and pressure, and that they believe he has the strength to eventually persevere through these problems.

As private citizens, if we fall off the wagon, it’s only our friends, family, and maybe a few co-workers who are aware. If Evan Felker falters, there’s an audience there to witness it, focused and ready to share their experience on social media, with cameras trained to circulate the entire episode on the internet and catalog it for history.

This week marks the 30th Anniversary of Keith Whitley dying from alcohol poisoning. Also this week a new mural depicting George Jones driving to the liquor store on a lawnmower stirred controversy in Nashville. For years the nickname of George Jones was “No Show” for his record of canceled gigs over decades that towers over the handful of Troubadours cancellations so far. Yet even No Show remains downright revered in country lore, even lauded in some respects for his addiction and irresponsibility, hence the new mural in his (drunken) honor. Possibly one of the biggest tragedies in this entire saga is that Evan Felker never found the degree of stardom of Keith Whitley, George Jones, Hank Williams, and country music’s other tragic characters, at least not yet. But an even bigger tragedy would be if Evan Felker didn’t pull through.

Even if Felker takes three months off to do a proper stint in rehab, which sufficed to say, should’ve happened many months ago, it’s still no guarantee he comes back clean and sober for the rest of his life. Just like many of country music’s most gifted contributors, Evan Felker has demons that it may take a lifetime to tame—demons that have also taken the lives of some of country music’s most important characters. The reason we don’t see similar instances of drunkenness from today’s top country stars is because many of them are not as touched creatively as Evan Felker, or those past country greats who struggled with their demons in the public eye. Addiction issues tend to parallel poetic brilliance. That is why the problem of addiction is as timeless as country music itself.

It’s difficult to know how to approach this situation as a fan, or frankly, as a journalist. You say something about an incident, you’ll be blamed for being callous, nosy, or exploitative. You say nothing, and you’re shielding the band from deserved criticism and concern. These worries of the public pale in comparison to the well-being of Evan Felker, which is where thoughts of people should be. As hard as it is to see Evan Felker stumble, it’s even harder to be Evan Felker and have to live through it. Addiction is a disease, and unlike in the eras of Hank Williams, George Jones, and Keith Whitley, we know more than ever now just how difficult this disease is to deal with, and how it’s no more the fault of its carriers than someone who contracts Cancer.

As a fan, or anyone involved in the situation, it’s hard to know where tough-nosed action is called for to steer someone back on track, and where undying love and support is needed to shepherd them through their struggles. But what we should all appreciate is that the well-being of Evan Felker is the most important issue, not the inconvenience of a cancelled show, or the disappointment of a poor performance. If this was an easy fix for Evan Felker, it would have happened already. Fans have every right to be angry over the circumstances which had resulted in major headaches for them. But being angry at Evan Felker is to misunderstand the disease of addiction, and potentially becoming part of the problem. Evan Felker was never built to be a big star. He’s a farm boy from Oklahoma who found a way with words, which is what makes him so endearing and relatable to country fans. He’s one of us, fighting through the same struggles as we all do, addiction and heartbreak included.

This is country music, and on Tuesday, the Turnpike Troubadours, Larry Gatlin, and Vince Gill were in Guthrie, Oklahoma to give support to their friend Byron Berline who was in need. Early in their careers, Byron Berline had been there to support the Turnpike Troubadours and others when they were coming up. Now perhaps it’s Evan Felker who has the need for a community of people to come together and support him, show him understanding in his struggle, and hopefully reciprocate some of the support that his music, and the music of the Turnpike Troubadours have given to music fans over the last 12 years. Because that’s what we do in country music, we come together.

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Editor’s Note: The next Turnpike Troubadours show is May 24th in Houston at the White Oak Music Hall. All scheduled Turnpike Troubadours shows are still currently on, with no indication or concerns for cancellations at this time.

The video from the Byron Berline benefit was linked above in the article for context, but will not be embedded here.