The Turnpike Troubadours never started out to be some huge band. The best never do. This wasn’t a business venture for these boys. This was a bunch of corn fed Oklahomans from Tahlequah getting together to pick a few tunes for fun, eventually inviting their friends and family over to listen, then venturing out to play a few local bars. Even Felker wrote a couple of songs; one of them was called “Every Girl.” And now they can’t travel hundreds of miles to the capital of Texas without packing out a large capacity venue on consecutive nights, and when they start singing that song, every single voice in that venue sings alone, and goosebumps are hard to fight back.
10 years for any particular musical concern is a feat in itself—lest we forget that, or grow selfish that we even get to have a band like the Turnpike Troubadours around. The last few months have tested the band’s mettle perhaps more than any other time in their decade run. With multiple cancellations for concerns we still don’t have a full picture for, it looked like potentially we’d had our last opportunity to get those goosebumps when that opening stanza of “Every Girl” comes blasting from the stage. But it wasn’t the end. Despite all the personal adversity and health problems, despite the name of the Turnpike front man being splayed all over tabloid rags across the country, they’re still just a group of Oklahoma boys, hanging out together and playing music for fun, who over time have begun to feel more like family to each other and to their fans. And that’s hard to tear asunder.
On Friday night, November 30th, the Turnpike Troubadours took the ACL Live stage in downtown Austin after an unexpected month-long hiatus. No rust, no palpable issues that you may attribute to some of the breathless and unsubstantiated rumors swirling around the band were present, just the rush that hits you when one of your favorite bands takes the stage. Their second song “Something To Hold On To” was nothing short of epic, extended out at the end, with every one of the guys digging into the effort, like they were all blowing off steam and working out any frustrations through the music itself, and left the crowd spellbound, where they stayed most of the night.
The current queen of Texas country music, Jamie Lin Wilson, opened the show, featuring songs from her brand new album Jumping Over Rocks. Though often performing live acoustically, she had assembled a band for the show that included Bryon White of The Damn Quails, opening with the song “The Being Gone,” playing “Sweet Little Cigars” from her supergroup The Trishas, “Stars in Oklahoma” which she co-wrote with Evan Felker, as well as her stunning, must-hear song from her new album, “Death and Life.” She also would come out on stage later to sing “Pay No Rent” and “Call A Spade A Spade” with the boys.
The Turnpike set included all of the earmarks of their recent shows, including Evan Felker singing “Empty As A Drum” solo, bass player RC Edwards taking lead on a song with fiddler Kyle Nix playing bass, and they encored starting with the Saving Country Music Song of the Year, “The Bird Hunters.” But customary for the Turnpike Troubadours would be considered remarkable for many other bands. Despite the respect Evan Felker and their contributors receive as songwriters, in the live setting, few rival what Turnpike does. Even Felker was strumming the acoustic, and pounding his heel into the stage like he was on fire. “Hammerin'” Hank Early was having his way with the steel guitar and accordion, and Ryan Engleman was adding the crackly edge to the music he’s known for.
The Turnpike Troubadours are like your brothers. Sometimes life gets sideways on them. It happens to the best of us. The fact that they can bleed and stumble sometimes is what fills their songs with truth, and makes them real, just like it often did for many of the past greats in country music. That’s not to excuse last-minute cancellations or anything else. Because when that affects your specific Turnpike Troubadours experience, it undoubtedly sucks, sours your perspective, and specifically because you know just how badass these boys can be when on top of their game.
But this isn’t a corporate band. The Turnpike Troubadours aren’t radio stars. They’re guys from Oklahoma who caught something magical together almost if by accident, and they’re greatest appeal is they’re just like us. How many times has the music of the Turnpike Troubadours been there for you during tough times? It only seems fitting you would be there for them through the tough times as well. But if their show in Austin, TX Friday night was any indication, those tough times are well in the past, at least for now. And so were yours when “Every Girl” hit your ears.
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