The Turnpike Troubadours The Turnpike Troubadours on LP
If The Turnpike Troubadours are playing in your town, you’ll know it. A block or two from the venue, you’ll see the crowds lining up. Get closer and you’ll start to hear the music - rockin’ hard, lashed by burnin’ fiddle and guitar, maybe a little rough on the edges but with a deep-rooted soul that's impossible to resist. And if you make it through the door, you’ll witness one of the best shows you'll ever see.
So is that the story? The Turnpike Troubadours tear it up night after night? Actually, no. There’s another side to singer/guitarist Felker, bassist RC Edwards, fiddler Kyle Nix, steel and electric guitarist Ryan Engleman and drummer Gabe Pearson. Maybe you don’t notice it as much at their shows, where their blazing performances tend to obliterate detached reflection.
But you’ll definitely notice it on their new album, The Turnpike Troubadours, to be released September 2015 on their Bossier City imprint. Away from the intensities of their show, the music speaks more intimately. Details of their arrangements clarify. Above all, the lyrics become the center of attention, spinning stories so compelling that you realize you’d almost forgotten how powerful the message of a song could be.
There’s “7 Oaks”, recounting a life made desperate by poverty, made more vivid by an incongruous hoedown accompaniment. “Bossier City,” focused on a sad mill worker who blows his pay regularly on gambling and booze. “The Bird Hunters,” a short story set to a Cajun waltz about friendship, love and coming home. “Down Here,” a conversation between one guy who has lost all he had and another who assures him life "down here" really isn’t so bad. “How Do You Fall Out Of Love,” a melancholy meditation on lost love.
“Human beings like stories,” Felker insists. “It doesn’t matter what form, whether it be a song or a movie or a poem. And they’ve always been drawn to characters. Our songs are real life applied to stories applied back to real life. I might get a plot line from several short stories I’ve read. Then I’ll build fallible characters into the midst of all that. They’re never archetypes. They’re real. It’s all about the character.”
In fact, characters are so central to the Turnpike Troubadours that they often turn up in more than one song. On The Turnpike Troubadours, for instance, the narrator in “Down Here,” Danny, turns up again in “The Bird Hunters.” “Stephen King has this canon of characters and any of them can walk into one of his stories at any time,” Felker says. “You have all these characters living in the same universe. I haven’t ever seen that applied to songwriting, but that’s what I’m doing.”
This universe feels real on The Turnpike Troubadours because the band resolved to let the album happen on its own time. Moving out to the Prairie Sun recording complex in the desert country of Cotati, California, setting up in former chicken coops converted into studios, they metaphorically unplugged the clock and worked studiously through 12-hour sessions, wrapping up only when each story and every note rang true.
"This album sounds like us at our best," Edwards says. "We weren't going for being overproduced. What we got was exactly what we wanted because we didn't have that time factor problem." And this is the paradox of the Turnpike Troubadours: Do they sound their best when they're delivering another electrifying live show or when they've crafted an artful album, enriched by a narrative tradition that traces back to their fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie, in which every nuance tells a story unto itself?
The proof is on The Turnpike Troubadours and at whatever place they're playing down the road near you. Think of them as a two-headed silver dollar; on both sides, you've got a winner.