Steel guitar and accordion have always had their place in the sound of the Turnpike Troubadours, even if they weren’t featured full time. When fleshing out songs in the studio, or when lead guitarist Ryan Engleman started playing some songs behind the steel rig a few years ago, it added another dimension and dynamic to the sound that is both traditional, yet fresh and relevant, and has turned Turnpike into one of the most compelling and promising acts in all of country music at the moment.
Then starting about two years ago, initially after Ryan Engleman injured himself and the Oklahoma-based outfit needed a fill in, guitar player “Hammerin'” Hank Early started showing up on stage.
“The reason they called me is because Ryan broke his wrist in August 2015,” Early explains. “They called me because I was on a short list of guys who could do steel guitar and lead guitar. I definitely wasn’t first on the list but I was the one that was willing to drop everything at the time and take what was presented as a temporary gig. Ryan was able to get back on lead guitar very quickly. I only ended up playing lead for 3 shows I think. And I moved to steel guitar exclusively.”
Even then it wasn’t a given Early would stay with the band. He was previously a touring member of Rodney Parker’s 50 Peso Reward outfit, where he spent three years between 2008 and 2011 touring on the road. That’s where Hank first rubbed elbows with the Troubadours guys. Incidentally, 50 Peso Reward is also where current Turnpike drummer Gabriel Pearson was drafted from.
Hank also helped earn his weekly pay before the Troubadours playing with a cover band called Raised Right Men, mostly in residencies at the Magnolia Motor Lounge in Fort Worth among other places. When he was initially called up by the Troubadours, Hank didn’t even know how to play the accordion, but decided to learn on the fly when frontman and singer Evan Felker encouraged him.
“I told him to give me a couple weeks. It’s a work in progress,” Early says. “I was contracted for a specific period of time—about 3 months—so I took that time to learn accordion, help out with background vocals and add as much as I could to the show. For a while there, I was pretty sure it was going to end up being a short term thing but over time, thankfully it was decided to keep me around.”
Hank Early was born in the east Texas town of Linden, TX near the Louisiana and Arkansas confluence, which is also famous for being the origination point of Don Henley and T-Bone Walker. Like many east Texas kids, Early’s first experiences with music were through the church choir. He also played guitar and piano when he was young, and picked up the steel guitar about 10 years ago. “I am still trying to figure out how to play the thing,” he says, though as any steel guitar player will tell you, it’s more like a lifelong puzzle to solve as opposed to something to master.
Now as the full-time steel guitar/accordion player for the Turnpike Troubadours, you will hear Hank Early’s contributions on the band’s upcoming album A Long Way From Your Heart due out October 20th.
“Nothing prepares you for the Turnpike crowd’s enthusiasm,” he says. “I had to learn all the songs in a week and jump in front of the biggest crowd I’d ever been in front of doing my best Ryan Engelman impersonation. But now I’ve been with the band for just over two years and we’ve made an album together that we are all very proud of and I feel like part of a family.
“11 guys on one bus for nearly half the year is not always as glamorous as people may imagine, but it is the most rewarding experience of my life and each show leaves me feeling like the luckiest man on earth. Playing for our fans is a total head rush and you never really get over the sound of all those voices singing along. It can be truly surreal sometimes and I have to remind myself that this is a job and I need to snap out of it, do my work and stop goofily smiling and watching the crowd.”
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