Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Current-Feature Story March 2010

Turnpike Troubadours

What do you want to do with your life? It’s a question we’ve all grappled with, from Cameron in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off to the unnamed kid in that Twisted Sister video. The kid’s answer? I wanna rock! Rock being a malleable term, it’s an ideal shared by Evan Felker and his band mates in perhaps the most exciting and arguably the most talented young band to come out of this area in some time, the Turnpike Troubadours.

If you’re a regular reader of this magazine, you’re probably somewhat familiar with these guys. But if you haven’t heard of them yet, now would be the time to familiarize yourself. Surely you want to be one of the cool kids who can say you listened to them way back when they were a struggling young band, before one of their songs is included on a Friday Night Lights episode or Kenny Chesney starts wearing their t-shirt at his shows to get a little street cred. But you better jump on the bandwagon quick, because it’s filling up in a hurry.

As with almost any new and up and coming band from Oklahoma, there is a strong urge to categorize the Turnpike Troubadours as simply another Red Dirt act, but one listen to their sound and you’ll quickly realize that, perhaps more than any other Oklahoma roots-rock band, their music defies such easy categorization. Lead singer, chief songwriter, acoustic guitarist and Tahlequah resident Felker chooses a philosophical view when describing his band’s music.

“We do what we do,” he explains, “Call it what you want.”

What more and more audiences are discovering, the thing to call it is plainly and simply good. Having toured and played gigs throughout Oklahoma almost non-stop over the past three years, the band, who along with Felker include R.C. Edwards on bass, Kyle Nix on fiddle, Ryan Engleman on lead guitar and Giovanni Carnuccio on drums, is now extending its reach into Texas and beyond, including recent stops in Minnesota and Iowa, and audiences everywhere are having a similar reaction.

“The crowds have been really great,” says Felker, “People respond to music the same way everywhere.”

What Felker, refreshingly, doesn’t quite seem to grasp is that people actually don’t respond to all music the same everywhere. It’s never that simple. The fact is, people only respond to quality music in the way Felker describes. And while The Blues Brothers might make one believe that the secret to winning over new audiences lies in a rousing rendition of the Rawhide theme, the reality is that if a band is playing original tunes in front of crowds who don’t necessarily know their music, that band better put on a great live show.

“I consider our type of music as live music,” says Felker, “The best way to hear it is live on the stage.”

With songs that blend electric roots rock with some acoustic folk and a little Cajun squeezebox, topped off with Nix’s ever-present fiddle, their sound is sometimes reminiscent of artists like The Gourds and The Felice Brothers, bands that have gained substantial followings on the strength of their live shows. At other times you can hear songs that you would swear must have been written by Steve Earle or Robert Earl Keen, those stories about doing hard time or blowing all your money gambling, or the n’er do well son in their song, “The Funeral,” off their latest album, who only comes home after his daddy dies: Jimmy looked at Mama/Mama just looked down/She said why’s it take a funeral boy/To bring you back to town?

That theme of small town, usually shady, characters struggling to exist on the fringes of society can be found throughout the band’s 2007 first album, Bossier City, and continues on their latest, Diamonds & Gasoline, released in early January. The album was produced by veteran Oklahoma musician and early Red Dirt success story, Mike McClure, who was highly impressed by the band.

“The Turnpike Troubadours show more promise song writing/talent wise than any band I’ve heard coming out of Oklahoma in a long time. They are definitely the new front-line torchbearers in a long line of Okie tradition. I am extremely proud to have been a part of working on this record,” McClure is quoted on the band’s website.

That kind of high praise is all the more amazing when you consider that Felker, whose songs are populated by characters who the creators of Breaking Bad would deem too edgy, is only 25. While other artists his age write songs about various things that occur on or around the dance floor, Felker has joined fellow new-school Southern gothic songwriters like Chris Knight and Patterson Hood, artists whose lyrics tell stories that call to mind William Faulkner or Flanary O’Connor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Felker’s writing is Nobel Prize-worthy. Yet. But in all seriousness, in a time when most country radio hits basically draw caricatures of the very fans that buy the music (“Hillbilly Bone,” anyone?), it is refreshing to hear songs that get it right, even the ugly parts. But that’s also precisely why you shouldn’t expect to hear these guys getting airplay anytime soon. And we all suffer for it.

I call it Nashville Fatigue Syndrome. It’s a problem that arises when one is inundated by the crap that country radio insists on dumping on music fans. Symptoms include unwittingly purchasing the latest Trailer Choir single and line-dancing to “Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk.” The only cure is satellite radio or Pandora, which I loved so much when I first discovered it that I wrote them an email telling how much I loved them, which prompted them to send me a free t-shirt, which was too small and I had to give to the gorgeous redhead to wear as a night gown, but still. Who doesn’t love a free t-shirt? The only problem with Pandora is, as of this writing, Turnpike Troubadours was not in its rotation.

Luckily you don’t have to go online to hear the band’s music. But with members living in Norman, Perry and Tahlequah, it can sometimes be hard work to simply get the band together for a gig, but work is something the Turnpike Troubadours haven’t shied away from. It’s their willingness to do the work, combined with the simple fact that they’ve been blessed with a buttload of talent, that makes it easy to see that the Turnpike Troubadours will one day be that band that those of us lucky enough to have seen them at this stage of their career will brag about having been into since the beginning.

One of the last things I asked Felker when interviewing him for this story was this: What made you decide that playing in a band was going to be what you do for a living?

“I’ve just always loved music,” was his answer.

Classic Felker. Short and to the point. Actually, when I spoke to him, Felker seemed a little uneasy when talking about himself. Maybe even a little embarrassed by the attention. It was actually quite charming, although charming doesn’t count for much when you’re looking for details. Perhaps next time I should talk more about me.

If you think you’re ready to jump on the bandwagon with the rest of us, check out the band’s website (which was built by lead guitarist Engleman) at, where you can find tour dates and even stream both their albums in entirety. You can also find them on myspace and facebook. Twitter too, if that’s something you’re interested in.