Turnpike Troubadours Return with Intimate New Album and Talk with PopMatters

Photo: Justin Voight

Recorded at former chicken farm north of San Francisco, the new release from Turnpike Troubadours seems like the one that will finally solidify the group's reputation as the best of its kind. And one member says it all comes down to getting what you deserve.

Turnpike Troubadours

Turnpike Troubadours

Label: Bossier City
US Release Date: 2015-09-18
UK Release Date: 2015-10-30

“I think it’s boredom,” says RC Edwards, bassist for Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours. He’s speaking from near the band’s home base in Oklahoma on the eve of the band’s new self-titled LP’s arrival in stores and speaking about the proliferation of bands that have come out of that state in the last decade. All—or at least most—identify with the Red Dirt Music marker. Not that it tells anyone how the bands sound. You won’t mistake Turnpike Troubadours for Jason Boland or Jason Boland for Cross Canadian Ragweed and none of them sound much like John Moreland, who doesn’t seem to identify with the Red Dirt tag at all.

“It’s more of a community that it is a sound,” Edwards says. “People always ask me to define the sound but I can’t do that. There’s a million different sounds. We shy away from saying that we have that sound but we do feel very much a part of that community.”

Edwards and his bandmates have been slowly making their way out of the nation’s heartland over the last decade, picking up steam by appearing at festivals and taking up opening slots along the way. The group’s first three albums sold modestly but attracted critical attention, many critics citing the latter two, 2010’s Diamonds and Gasoline and 2012’s Goodbye Normal Street as criminally overlooked records within their respective years of release. Normal Street did connect with a wider audience than its predecessors and managed to show well on the U.S. charts, especially in the folk and country categories.

Not that either of those charts necessarily represent what this band does best. Just as often as the group whips out heartbreaking ballads and tales of dirt roads and sawdust-covered floors, there are hard-hitting rockers (see “The Mercury” on the eponymous LP) that call to mind The Del Fuegos and The Blasters as much as anything else in the band’s catalog that calls to mind Hank Williams or Buck Owens.

Edwards says that the new album is a confluence of the band’s past and present, touching on the high-energy hijinks of youth and tempering it with the kind of wise and sometimes weary observations that come with maturity and, sure, maybe even age. For Edwards, the intersection of the wild and the mild just makes sense. “I don’t know that we sat down and said, ‘Let’s start a country band,’” he recalls, “as much as that’s the scene that we all evolved from. We all grew up listening to country music. You go through that phase when you’re a teenager and country music isn’t cool and everyone starts a punk rock band. Then you grow up and grow out of that and all of a sudden you bring that punk rock stuff back when you start your country band and that’s how you wind up where we are.”

He’s also quick to point to those who have led the way in the past. “Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland made it cool to play country music in Oklahoma, even if you were a young person,” he says.

The new album isn’t all raucous party music. There’s a balance between the highway roar of the aforementioned “The Mercury” and the quiet, timeless “A Little Song” throughout, culminating in a remarkable balance of loud and quiet, brutality and beauty.

“I think of it like a pitcher: You can’t throw fastballs the whole game,” Edward says. “You gotta have some curveballs and change-ups. You gotta let people ride along with you. We’re kind of known for a lot of fast and rowdy songs but you can’t do that all night long. You gotta take a breath.”

Since the start the band has earned its keep on the stage and Edwards is quick to point out that the fruits of that labor have been showing themselves of late with larger and ever more appreciative audiences.

"In the beginning we were in beer joints where we had people wanting to hear Merle Haggard songs all night,” he says. “We would try and sneak our own songs in when we could and hope that somebody would dance to them. And we had nights when there was nobody there except for friends and family. Pretty soon hundreds of people are showing up all across the country. So from then to now it’s a pretty awesome feeling.”

If things go well—and there is every indication that they will—Turnpike Troubadours will be a name on many more lips over the coming year. Edwards is quick to point out that although the band’s climb to greater national visibility isn’t entirely by accident, it’s not the kind of thing you exactly achieve by design either. “You get what you earn. That’s our philosophy on stuff like that,” he says. “But you do look to take every record to the next level. We definitely have the attitude that success is the product of hard work.”

The hard work behind Turnpike Troubadours involved the band recording far from home, in Cotati, California, a small stretch north of San Francisco, to record at former chicken farm called Prairie Sun Studios. “We lived in the farm house,” Edwards says. “We were totally isolated; we just worked on the music for four weeks straight.”

Those weeks of isolation resulted in an album that sounds intimate, as though the listener is present at its very creation. The band sounds close enough to hear your heart break during the poignant ode to friendship “Down Here” or to hear the hair stand up on your arms during the uncompromising battle charge of “Doreen”. “A lot of that had to do with being really relaxed,” Edwards says. “We’ve never had that kind of time in the studio before just to get in there and feel like the pressure was off. We could take our time, try new ideas and just get really comfortable. That’s by far the most comfortable I think we’ve ever been in the studio.”

The band celebrated the release of the new album with performances at Medicine Stone, the festival the group started just three years ago with Jason Boland. The 2015 version included performances from Thomas Trapp and Old 97’s while past years have included appearances from former Turnpike Troubadour John Fullbright. “We play these great festivals all over the country and we’ve always wanted to do something like that at home,” says Edwards. “We do it for the people around Tahlequah but also so that we can bring other bands to Tahlequah so that they can see our part of the world.”

And the Turnpike Troubadours live in a part of the world where music has long been important—going back to Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys at Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom to the Tulsa sound of the '70s that spawned the hot players who backed Eric Clapton for much of that decade.

“Everyone I know around here plays music. I think that breeds good music, when you’re around it all the time, when it’s part of peoples’ regular lives,” Edwards says. “And there’s still ties to the Tulsa sound of the ‘70s around here. I think some of what’s happening now is a continuation of that. There’s been great music in Oklahoma in the past and there’s always going to be great music here.”

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still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

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Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

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