Turnpike Troubadours frontman Evan Felker is cracking a cold can of Corona at his pad on a late summer afternoon (closer to noon than after) in Okemah, Okla., a town of less than 3,500 people that folk-singing icon Woody Guthrie used to call home. Nowadays, the locals are pretty proud of ol’ Woody. You can find his mug adorning a downtown mural, there’s a statue of him in a memorial park and his moniker resides atop a water tower. Or, better yet, just check out Okemah’s town motto: “Home of Woody Guthrie and the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.”
Evan has a long road ahead of him if he wants his name added to his hometown’s motto one day, but he and his Turnpike Troubadour bandmates—Kyle Nix, Ryan Engleman, RC Edwards and Gabriel Pearson—are traveling at the optimal speed.
The Red Dirt raconteurs have gone from 0 to 75 (that’s the speed limit on their namesake Indian Nation Turnpike) since dropping their debut album, Bossier City, in 2007, and following it up with their sophomore effort, Diamonds & Gasoline, in 2010.
After their acclaimed third album, Goodbye Normal Street, in 2012, the quintet had their work cut out for them if they wanted to create new songs as supercharged as that album’s “Wrecked” and “Good Lord Lorrie.”
Well, crack another cold Corona in celebration, Evan, because Turnpike’s new self-titled album is another seamless combination of their old-timey instrumentation (fiddle, harmonica, steel, banjo) with a 21st-century sound and poignant storytelling.
On the heels of a weeklong tour reprieve and the release of Turnpike Troubadours on Sept. 18, Evan is back in Okemah on a Thursday afternoon enjoying those Coronas and playing with his new puppy, a squirrel dog that he just picked up at the airport. It may still officially be summer, but the threat of fall is in the air and there are varmints and doves and ducks to hunt soon in Oklahoma.
“I usually like to have three beers before interviews to free my mind—get my mind nimble,” says Evan with an affable laugh. “You’ll get some good sh*t the longer it goes.”
Indeed, Evan is correct. The 45-minute interview runs the gamut of topics, everything from dove hunting (“they sure are tasty little guys”) to career highlights (“selling out Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa”) to carrying the Red Dirt torch (“it’s flattering to hear, but I’m not interested in saying anything like that”) to his favorite songwriters.
“Jerry Jeff [Walker] and [Merle] Haggard, the songs they wrote are bulletproof,” says Evan. “Marty Robbins was one of my main influences, writing those long narratives with gorgeous imagery, they’re like miniature movies. I forget about Robert Earl Keen sometimes, too, about how I’ve gleaned from his work—or stole—but sh*t, you gotta steal from someone who’s good. I love him.”
Leading the charge on Turnpike’s new album—and straight out of the Robert Earl Keen songwriting handbook—is the energetic barroom howler “The Mercury,” which resurrects a couple of characters—Jimmy and Lorrie—from past songs “The Funeral” and “Good Lord Lorrie.” The song has enough roadhouse swagger that it’s one stanza away from Patrick Swayze spin-kicking his way into it.
“I wondered if writing about Jimmy and Lorrie again would be cool or not,” says Evan. “I thought it was kinda risky. I didn’t know if people would think it was just lazy and I should come up with more characters or if I could work them into sort of the canon of it all and they could exist in that universe together. I think it worked out and makes our Turnpike universe a little more interesting.”
|Turnpike Troubadours Tour Dates|
|Sept.||26||Medicine Stone||Tahlequah, Okla.|
|Oct.||3||Southern New Mexico State Fair & Rodeo||Las Cruces, N.M.|
|4||The Rialto Theatre||Tucson, Ariz.|
|5||The Marquee||Tempe, Ariz.|
|7||El Rey Theatre||Los Angeles, Calif.|
|8||Belly Up Tavern||Solana Beach, Calif.|
|10||Slo Brew||San Luis Obispo, Calif.|
|11||Slim’s||San Francisco, Calif.|
|20||Varsity Theater||Baton Rouge, La.|
|21||The Lyric||Oxford, Miss.|
|24||Georgia Theater||Athens, Ga.|
|25||Cox Capitol Theatre||Macon, Ga.|
|27||Paramount Center for the Arts||Bristol, Tenn.|
|28||Jefferson Theater||Charlottesville, Va.|
|29||Lincoln Theater||Raleigh, N.C.|
|30||Amos Southend||Charlotte, N.C.|
|31||Harvester Performance Center||Rocky Mount, Va.|
|4||Highline Ballroom||New York|
|6||Ram’s Head Live||Baltimore|
|7||The Filmore||Silver Spring, Md.|
|14||Floore’s Country Store||Helotes, Texas|
As the album progresses, the Turnpike universe gets even more interesting. The boys reveal their tender side on “A Little Song” and showcase their clever lyricism on the soothing “Time of Day” (Hillbilly girl just as sweet as wine, grew up in a thicket like a muscadine).
In “The Bird Hunters,” Turnpike makes their own Marty-esque miniature movie—set along the backdrop of a quail hunt—about dodging the bullet of marriage, before capping the album with the spirited “Bossier City,” an energetic rerecording of a song that appeared on their debut album and is a staple of their live shows.
“I’m really proud of the record, I really am,” says Evan. “Our evolution has been slow. You reach a milestone by playing some huge venue or selling X-amount of records or hearing yourself on the radio, whatever it is, every band has those things in their life that they’ve always wanted to do. But the growth is so slow that it takes those mile markers to really take you aback enough to realize that you’re actually doing something positive. Your head is down trying so hard to make forward motion that you don’t realize you’re doing it every day. But this album is another one of those mile markers that lets us know we’re going in the right direction.”
And if the boys keep heading in that direction, Okemah is going to have to change its motto to: “Home of Woody Guthrie and the Turnpike Troubadours’ Evan Felker.”
Learn more about Turnpike Troubadours
(From left) Ryan Engleman, Gabriel Pearson, Kyle Nix, Evan Felker and RC Edwards of the Turnpike Troubadours