What’s Different About Turnpike Troubadours 2.0

We said it for years. In fact, we say it about all of our favorite independent artists. We listen to their music, go to their shows, get such immense pleasure from their work, and insight from their songs, feel a great sense of gratitude, take such ownership in their careers, and sit back wonder why in the hell they’re playing in clubs—theaters if they’re lucky—and struggling to get by while those losers on the radio are packing out arenas. It’s just so unjust.

This seems true for all of our favorite artists, but it seemed especially true for the Turnpike Troubadours—the 2007-2019 version. Why weren’t they bigger? Why hadn’t the rest of the world caught on? Weren’t they listening to the song of Evan Felker? Couldn’t they see this was like a supergroup of players all to themselves?

In many respects, the Turnpike Troubadours were doing much better than many of our other favorite artists. But to make a living at their music and feed the mouths of six members and a support staff, they had to constantly be on the road, and mostly on the same circuit of haunts centered around Texas/Oklahoma/Arkansas/Louisiana/Missouri, unable to stretch their wings much farther since the farther they went from Oklahoma, the smaller the crowds got, and the less the pay was.

The Turnpike Troubadours were stuck in a weird place as local superstars, regional headliners, and generally speaking, national unknowns outside of the small diaspora of Red Dirt fans barely big enough to pack 500-capacity rooms in many locations at the extremities of the United States.

Part of the issue probably had to do with the fact that the world was not ready for the Turnpike Troubadours just yet. Timing is everything in music, and they were just slightly ahead of their time. They were around before the explosion of Sturgill Simpson, then Tyler Childers, then Zach Bryan and Billy Strings. Even within their strong fan base, people took Turnpike for granted. We just assumed they’d always be here. After all, if you lived in Texas or Oklahoma and missed one of their shows, you could just wait a few months and they would come back around, and you could always grab a day-of ticket on the cheap.

But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and not only did the Turnpike Troubadours hiatus re-calibrate our gratitude and make us ponder a world where they’re not around at all, it happened during an unprecedented time of discovery in independent country music. As fans lapped up Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, and Zach Bryan, they went looking for similar artists, liked what they heard in the Turnpike Troubadours, and became instant fans.

No matter where you personally slot the Turnpike Troubadours on the country music depth chart, there’s pretty universal agreement that there is no better band for converting mainstream fans to independent country believers that the boys from Oklahoma. With some artists, it takes convincing, or an acquired taste. With the Turnpike Troubadours, as soon as someone hears “Every Girl,” “7&7,” or “Good Lord, Lorrie,” they’re instant fans.

But so much of the current and continued success of the Turnpike Troubadours after their return comes down to simple logistics and management. The Turnpike Troubadours couldn’t just be put right back on the regular touring circuit that they played for so many years and expect different results. The issues with frontman Evan Felker were real and personal, but they were exacerbated by the pressure of needing to be constantly on tour and away from home, and if they missed a date or two, it could mean missing the next mortgage payment.

It was best to blow that whole approach up and start over. You see this in your personal life or in your own job too, don’t you? Sometimes when it feels like you’ve hit rock bottom and everything is about to implode, it’s within those moments that an opportunity to enact a paradigm shift and completely re-orientate yourself on a more successful path presents itself.

This is what the Turnpike Troubadours have done. You may recall, during Turnpike’s indefinite hiatus, the band filed a lawsuit against their former management, claiming all sorts of infractions. This isn’t to throw the band’s previous management entirely under the bus, but at the least, the Turnpike Troubadours had outgrown their original team. They needed folks around them that could take them to the next level, that knew their potential, and could help them achieve it.

Now with the management company Tmwrk, and working with their long-time booking agent Jon Folk of Red 11, they have crafted a strategy where the Turnpike Troubadours don’t have to slog it out and constantly be on the road, but can be more selective with their bookings. This is what we’re seeing line up for 2023. Instead of publishing huge strings of tour dates, it’s one-off shows in bigger venues. Turnpike paid their dues plenty during the 1.0 version. They’ve earned the ability to be more selective with their appearances. Cede the 50-dates-in-two-months tour circuit to the up-and-comers who still need to make their name.

Just like Billy Strings, the Turnpike Troubadours have weaseled their way into becoming an arena artist, at least in select markets. This week they announced they’ll be playing the immense American Airlines Center in Dallas, TX on February 25th, 2023, along with The Avett Brothers and The Wood Brothers.

This is a smart move, and one we saw when they booked their reunion shows at Red Rocks earlier in 2022 and their first arena show at Paycom in OKC earlier this month: book big openers who will help draw and fill these arenas to capacity, and cross pollinate fan bases. Because again, all you need to do to create a Turnpike fan is expose someone to their music. The truth is, The Avett Brothers have been at or near the arena level themselves for years with little fanfare. The Avetts remain the most popular band nobody’s ever heard of.

Of course there are a bunch of fans bellyaching over having to see the Turnpike Troubadours in arenas now. Well suck it up. You had plenty of opportunities to see Turnpike in smaller spaces for a dozen years. They’ve graduated now, as have a lot of independent country artists to the next level of support, and more are on the way. We’re winning the battles, and the war. Our favorite artists are shifting the paradigm, and changing the very notions of what it means to be “independent.” Artists like the Turnpike Troubadours and Tyler Childers now have major label artists opening for them, and looking on with envy.

Yes, success introduces an entirely new set of problems. But they’re good problems to have comparatively. When it comes to the Turnpike Troubadours, or really any band, the personal health and well-being of the players should always be the first priority. Even Felker now has two little ones running under foot that he probably wants to spend more time with than less. This new approach to touring facilitates that, while increasing capacity to facilitate more fans.

Meanwhile, the Turnpike Troubadours are turning in some of the best performances of their careers, and one after another. In a healthier environment for everyone, with a renewed hunger, and not boring themselves from having to perform the same songs five nights a week, they can take the stage in front of voracious crowds with a new sense of vigor.

And yes, the stadium experience can be a step down if the production doesn’t take a step up. It can also be incredible and immersive to stand within a sea of like-minded fans moving like waves to the rhythms of a massive musical experience. And if that’s not for you, all the more reason you should be making sure to see Sierra Ferrell, Charley Crockett, Lainey Wilson, Mike and the Moonpies, Flatland Cavalry, Kaitlin Butts, Molly Tuttle, 49 Winchester, and so many more independent artist on the way up before they get launched into the stratosphere.

And don’t worry, new music from the Turnpike Troubadours is certainly on the way. After all, why in the hell did you just read this whole thing if you weren’t hoping to see at least some news about it? But just like their touring strategy, new music will come when the time is right, and when it’s the most opportune. Everything is aligning for 2023 to be the year of the Turnpike Troubadours. You think they took a step up in 2022 with their return? Wait until you see what they have in store next.

It’s a new day in country music, for the Turnpike Troubadours, and for independent music in general. Barriers have been torn down, spirits have been lifted, opportunities never though possible are happening before our very eyes. There are still so many artists out there also deserving of greater attention and support for their art. Not all of them are going to rise to the arena level, but we do hope that all who deserve it are able to forge sustainable careers in music and flourish.

But for now it’s important to recognize the Turnpike Troubadours Version 2.0 as an independent country music success story, heed the lessons that their ascent can teach us, and be thankful for how a band from Oklahoma has upped the possibilities for all independent country artists, while we contemplate where they go from here.

Stay tuned.

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