Like a countrified Bruce Springsteen or more rocking John Prine, the characters inhabiting the lyrics of the Turnpike Troubadours front man Evan Felker’s songs function essentially as archetypes. But like both Prine and Springsteen, these same individuals transcend mere stock character status and possess a level of familiarity—and inherent know-ability—that make them as real as the folks down the street or those you pass every day on your way to work. These are the stories of real lives lived in a fictional world that more often not mirrors our own.
Essentially, the Turnpike Troubadours create a form of country music that adheres more to the music’s roots as a folk style based in the lives of its creators and practitioners. Rather than focusing on a lifestyle aesthetic or manufactured sociological construct, as is the case with much of the contemporary country music field, the Turnpike Troubadours sing of life as it exists for a sizable portion of the country. Songs of family, friends, love, loss and honor permeate their ever-expanding catalog. Their latest, a self-titled effort, finds them rolling through familiar musical and lyrical territory with an admirable level of consistency and quality.
Opening track “The Bird Hunters” picks up where their previous album, 2012’s stellar Goodbye Normal Street, left off. Hauntingly melancholic yet grounded in a fictionalized reality that feels instantly familiar, “The Bird Hunters” is an exceptional, conversational bit of writing that flows forth effortlessly from Felker’s unaffected delivery, creating vivid imagery full of nuance and detail that would fall flat in the hands of a lesser songwriter. The song’s narrator, ostensibly Felker himself or, at the very least, his literary doppelganger, sings of going home to Cherokee County in hopes of finding himself in the people and places of his formative years. Using the imagery of upland bird hunting with a childhood friend, Felker intersperses his inward feelings with the often visceral sensations associated with the hunt, finally finding himself to be right where he needs to by song’s end.
And while “The Bird Hunters” allows for a stylistic through line between the two albums, Turnpike Troubadours is a different beast entirely. Where Goodbye Normal Street was rooted in the more traditional end of the red dirt spectrum, their latest is a far more rocking affair, cranking up the volume and intensity without sacrificing the emotional sentiment they’ve shown themselves to have earned over the course of four magnificent albums.
This is most clear on the linear narrative that is “The Mercury”, a rollicking throwback country rocker that shows Felker to be at the top of his lyrical game. In place of their previous efforts’ acoustic guitars are crunchy, earthy Telecasters decked out in distortion and reverb giving these songs a heft and swagger only implied on previous releases. By no means a straight rock album, it certainly takes more than a few cues from the genre’s earlier days, updating it with a more contemporary sound and feel.
Proving themselves still capable of sensitive, low-key ballads, the gorgeous “A Little Song” borrows “Empty As a Drum”s formula, allowing for just Felker and a guitar. While the electric songs show the group’s muscle, it’s these types of songwriting exercises that show off Felker’s strengths as a songwriter. While not as lyrically complex or dense as “Empty”, “A Little Song” explores similar thematic territory with equally affecting results.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, “Doreen” employs a wickedly fast shuffle to underscore the well-trod notion of (suspected) infidelity. With the song’s narrator torn up by a prophetic dream, the music threatens to fly off the rails as it races towards the song’s inconclusive conclusion. While we never really find out whether or not the narrator’s suspicions are warranted, the tension runs high enough to lure the listener into his paranoia and suspicion.
On the penultimate track, “Fall Out of Love”, they craft the best song of love and loss this side of Dwight Yoakam’s “The Back of Your Hand”. Even more so than that deeply personal song from the latter’s grossly overlooked Population Me, it takes a somewhat staid country lyrical trope and updates it for modern listeners, lacing it with palpable sadness and longing. It’s yet another in a long line of impressive lyrical outings from Felker and company.
What’s most apparent by album’s end is that the Turnpike Troubadours may well be one of the best, most consistent contemporary country groups out there. Splitting the difference between alt.country and the mainstream, Turnpike Troubadours red dirt sound is as down-to-earth and instantly familiar as the best classic country. By updating the sound for a modern audience without sacrificing any of the requisite sentiments, the members of the Turnpike Troubadours prove themselves well versed in the music’s history and the social implications therein. It’s folk music for the folks who inspire Felker’s masterful lyrics.
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