Turnpike Troubadours are the definition of road warriors. For the past dozen years, the Red Dirt six-piece have built their reputation on the back of tireless touring, selling out honky-tonks and dance halls throughout their home state of Oklahoma and nearby Texas. They'll play over 100 shows this year, mostly to crowds of 4,000. At the heart of it all, though, is the band's songwriting.
"Songwriting is the most important thing to me. Everything else comes second," says Evan Felker, lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter for Turnpike Troubadours. It was a love of the writing craft, in fact, that brought him together with bassist and bandmate R.C. Edwards more than a decade ago. "He was a songwriter before he was a bass player. I used to open for his band, we got to be pals, and that's how the band got started. Now I write with my friends."
Felker plays a bigger role than ever before in the creation of the Troubadours' new LP, A Long Way From Your Heart, writing or co-writing each of its 11 tracks. Out now, the record is filled with tales of blue-collar hardship and small-town heartache, but also an unwavering willpower — people forever "fucking up the status quo," as the narrator puts it on "Old Time Feeling (Like Before)."
"It comes from life, but not necessarily things that happen to me directly. I'd lead a pretty tragic life if everything I'd ever written had happened to me," Felker says, laughing. He points to the short stories of authors like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and James Joyce as major influences in his own storytelling. "Those guys have recurring characters, which is a thing I learned from them. You can fill a little universe and a little canon. It's something you can get lost in."
There are plenty of characters to digest on A Long Way From Your Heart. Truckers, fathers, hunters and more than a few quarreling lovers — they all flash by in a manner fitting of a band forever headed for the next stop on the highway. Felker is the first to admit that the Troubadours' storytelling is often collaborative — "Old Time Feeling" and "Pipe Bomb," a song released earlier this month, were both co-written by Felker, Edwards and Texas songwriter Johnny Burke — but he has a preference for solo writing.
"There's a line in East of Eden by [John] Steinbeck that says, 'There's not ever been a really brilliant co-write.' All the brilliant stuff comes from one mind and one hand," Felker says. "I'm not saying [my writing] is brilliant, I'm just saying the best stuff comes from one person."
That skill wasn't developed in a vacuum, however. It was honed on the stage, trying to hold the attention of footloose two-steppers. "It's very easy to write a poignant story that's a little slow. You can really bore a crowd with that stuff sometimes," Felker admits. "We'd be playing dance halls and these punk rock bars in Tulsa, and play something like a Merle Haggard tune or George Strait so people could dance. Eventually we started sneaking our own stuff in there. It was just survival at that point."
Now well past the point of self-preservation, the Troubadours brought in a new collaborator this time around with producer Ryan Hewitt, whose previous credits include Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Avett Brothers and Lumineers. "He's got an ear for music, like another member of the band, in a way. He really cares about the way a band sounds and representing the band's sound with the recording," Felker says of Hewitt. Working with the Grammy winner was more a matter of refinement than looking for a change in sound. As Felker puts it, "He definitely distilled it down to a little bit better liquor."
Staying true to the band's roots is simple, as far as Felker is concerned. "I really like music that can be played on a back porch somewhere. I want that to be the soul of our music," he says, pointing to albums like Van Morrison's Moondance and Jerry Jeff Walker's Riding High as works to aspire to. "I guess we're a country band. But I don't think Merle Haggard would say we're a real, traditional country band," he adds, thoughtfully.
Nonetheless, the Troubadours are unquestionably associated with the Red Dirt movement, and Felker is proud of the inclusion. "A bunch of my heroes invented [Red Dirt]. I have to be thankful to them; they paved the way for us to have any success in any manner at all," he says. Over the years, he's become friends with members of groups like Cross Canadian Ragweed and Great Divide, who inspired him to pursue his own career. "I probably would've done something else if not for those guys. I probably would've stayed at the mill. As a Podunk kid from Southeast Oklahoma, that was just inspiring."
Rising to Number Three on the country charts and cracking the Top 20 of the Billboard 200, the band's 2015 self-titled album was a commercial breakthrough, suggesting that the group may have a far bigger audience to tap beyond the Red Dirt circuit – and A Long Way From Your Heart is poised to propel the Troubadours further into the mainstream. Like its predecessors, the album is being released independently via the band's own label, Bossier City Records, with help from Thirty Tigers. But even a whiff of wider success doesn't change Felker and the Troubadour's rebel streak.
"It'd be awesome to be 20, 21 and sign a deal with a label and get out on the road. Because it's hard to get out on the road, it's hard to get gigs," says Felker. "But I don't think that's for me. You're going to get fleeced with a record deal, there's no way around it. I wouldn't give up the rights to my music, ever."