Proving that he was much more than just an “E = mc” square, celebrated wiseguy Albert Einstein pretty much nailed it when he proclaimed, “There is only one road to true human greatness: through the school of hard knocks.”
And if there is any truth to the electric-haired master’s “speed of enlightened” declaration, then the incredibly bumpy roads of the last few years have produced some pretty great humans – not to mention some pretty great music.
Times have been tough for just about everyone, especially those living in the heartland. The upside is that people are stronger and more thick-skinned. The downside? They’re much harder to win over.
That’s especially true when it comes to the music that rolls into their local bars, music halls and honky tonks. And that speaks volumes about the overwhelming success that Turnpike Troubadours have had on the Red Dirt circuit with the group’s authentic and fiery sound.
Over the past five years frontman Evan Felker, bassist RC Edwards, fiddle player Kyle Nix, guitarist Ryan Engleman and drummer Gabe Pearson have honed their rowdy, quick-witted sound, bringing folks of all stripes together to witness the dynamic quintet firsthand.
Felker chatted with me recently about the Troubadours’ third full-length album “Goodbye Normal Street,” an extraordinary blend of the band’s trademark “sweet ‘n sour” that fuses the scenery of Red Dirt America with the inner workings of a group of 20-somethings on a quest for something better.
The Troubadours continue to roll with their outstanding third record, building on the raw-boned energy of their 2007 debut, “Bossier City,” cut on a shoestring budget and aimed squarely at getting boots on the dance floor and 2010’s sophomore outing, “Diamonds and Gasoline,” which spawned the Americana favorite “Every Girl” and brought them to the attention of folks throughout the country and overseas.
Felker was understandably thrilled with “Goodbye Normal Street,” but confessed to a little bit of “normal” apprehension.
“Yeah man, we did ‘Bossier City.’ It was kind of a hybrid, you know? We did it initially, we spent quite a bit of money on the production ourselves and then it wound up getting picked up and distributed. This is the first one where we had a little bit of money to play with.”
“There’s a little voice inside your head that says, ‘They’re not gonna like you. Is this good?’ But we’ve been at this for a while now and we obviously know the distinction between good and bad as far as the work goes.”
“We wouldn’t have been around this long if we thought that people were gonna think it was bad. You just have to trust yourself, trust your gut and not worry too much. I’ve had a nightmare or two over that. ‘I wonder if they’re gonna think this is dumb? (laughing)”
Felker, who writes a majority of the lyrics – with an assist from Edwards who penned the semi-autobiographical “Morgan Street” about the band’s hardscrabble early days – has a knack for capturing slices of life in vivid detail. And it’s that raw honesty that really sets the Troubadours’ music apart, something to which Felker readily agreed.
“I think that’s any good music. Or any good – whether it be a damn painting or something – when it comes from the right spot. It’s got a little something to it. A little magic to it. That’s why you get guys like Jerry Jeff (Walker) and those greats – maybe their honest opinions when they were at their best, you know?”
“I’m just kind of a simple guy, and there’s a certain amount of your own personality and your own mistakes and trials you share in your work, for it to be very genuine. ‘Cause I could write about the Spanish Civil War but it wouldn’t be nearly so real. I just try to stay pretty close to what I’m writing about. That way at least I know it really well and then I can share with people.”
“I think it’s attacking a subject based on what you know already and, and based on what you feel about that or what you felt about things like that in the past. I’m trying to attack all of what I would be in that situation.”
“Goodbye Normal Street” is rife with Felker’s exquisite songwriting. He is at his stirring best with the affecting “Blue Star” – a bittersweet tale of a veteran returning from war. And yet he tweaks the listener with the unexpected “Gin, Smoke and Lies” – on which he contrasts his own romantic plight with that of a rooster.
One of the many outstanding cuts is “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead,” ominously warning the listener to live life to the fullest. Felker was unequivocal as to the song’s intent. “That’s it. That’s the exact thing of everything that I put into it. It’s just about some folks that just did exactly what they wanted to do and lived life exactly how they wanted to and eventually died. There’s beauty in that.”
As with any talented songwriter, Felker works hard to balance the lessons he’s learned through years of experience with the conscious goal of keeping things fresh.
“That gets included in the song writing process really, every song. Everybody’s got a natural need to keep doing something newer and cooler then what they’ve done in the past. And that’s just growing as a musician. All our growth is pretty natural growth. It’s not like deciding that we need to come up with something for everybody else.”
Speaking of the Troubadours’ brilliant musical growth, someone noted that “isolation can be the mother of originality.” But as the band’s fan base continues to grow, that cherished isolation may naturally give way to a dearth of “us time,” making creative efforts much trickier. Felker and the band were up to the challenge.
“We still live in Oklahoma and practice there. We’re still pretty isolated and we choose to be. But I could see it getting watered down, not in a bad way really. Just being exposed to what everybody else is doing and it kind of sneaking in and coming out in your work.”
After spending some time with the gifted yet unpretentious Felker, I came away knowing that no amount of well-justified exposure would ever ruin the Troubadours.
“When you start, I think initially you want to play in front of people and those things that are success for you. And those things still are. Being able to pay the bills is pretty nice. And we’re at that point now where we’re not stressed out that they’re gonna shut the lights off while we’re out here. But if we can keep this up and selling records, I think we’re as successful as I care to be.”
Looking back twenty years from now, there’s no question that Felker and the Turnpike Troubadours will have accomplished the goals that are as straightforward and unfettered as their music.
“Maybe make enough money that you don’t have to go back to the factory in twenty years. Let’s see, there are still places I’d still like to play. I’d like to go to the Grand Ole Opry and stuff like that you know. There are things left to be done. I’d like to see the ocean someday.”
If you ask me, in 20 years the gifted artist will have seen all five oceans…