The fiddle is there. The banjo is there. But I wouldn’t call Turnpike Troubadours bluegrass. The guitar is there. Sometimes pedal steel is there. But I wouldn’t call them country, either.
Instead, Turnpike Troubadours exist in the in-between of country and rock n’ roll, making their own way with a red dirt country sound, combining some elements of modern country with old fashioned twang. But the part that really sets them apart from the rest of the country music pack is their focus on quality lyrics. While other country singers are singing about red Solo cups and getting drunk on airplanes, Turnpike Troubadours are laying down some real talk in what could otherwise be run-of-the-mill country music cheatin’ song, “Gin, Smoke, Lies.”
Well a spade is made for diggin’ dirt
and an axe is made for choppin’
And darlin’ my heart’s hard as nails
they hammer in a hardwood coffin
In a hardwood coffin
It’s in character-driven story-telling that the words of their songs truly shine— many of their songs feel as if they could be straight out of an early Springsteen album with themes of blue-collar strife, small-town life and romance gone wrong. See, for example, “Good Lord, Lorrie”:
And I’ve been learning that believing and that barely breaking even
It’s just a part of life for you and me
And I’ve been living with the loneliness, it’s got down in my bones I guess
It’s just another phase of being free
And I’ve been learning how to lose a thing I never laid a hand on all along
Well good lord Lorrie, I love you, could it go more wrong
Evan Felker, the chief songwriter in the five-person band, told Rolling Stone that he draws his biggest influences from the literary classics— Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and James Joyce— and that, like them, he creates a universe that his characters exist in. This is the case for Lorrie, who reappears in other TT songs, including the opening track of the band’s latest album—a song called “The Housefire.” Like any good Springsteen-esque song, and as the song title suggests, there is not exactly a happily-ever-after for these characters.
The ending of the story for the Turnpike Troubadours themselves might be a little more cheerful, however. Their latest album, A Long Way From Your Heart, has gotten near-universal rave reviews, from both establishment country music critics and those of us who are a little more discerning in our country music criticisms. And their fans are just as likely to be spotted at a Brad Paisley show or a Robert Earl Keen show. It seems that in the Venn Diagram of honky tonk, there is actually one thing we can all agree on.
Turnpike Troubadours play Metro Music Hall on Tuesday January 30. Timmy the Teeth opens. Tickets are sold out, but you may have luck on the ticket exchange here.