“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.”