Oklahoma songwriter recounts his bumpy road to redemption for the upcoming book Red Dirt: Roots Music, Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere
For more than a year, the Turnpike Troubadours have been on what they have termed an indefinite hiatus. During that time, band co-founder and front man Evan Felker has kept a low profile, staying far away from media (social or otherwise), and distancing himself from the high-profile turmoil that dogged him and his band in 2018 and 2019.
On September 19th, the book Red Dirt: Roots Music, Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere, will be released worldwide. The book tells of how the Red Dirt music scene grew from a group of campfire singers in rural Oklahoma into a steady, formidable part of the Americana landscape. Using exclusive access and extensive interviews with artists, Red Dirt traces the scene’s roots to Woody Guthrie and breaks down its current appeal. The heydays of the Great Divide, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, and Stoney LaRue are explored in vivid detail, and modern Texas artists like Randy Rogers and Jamie Lin Wilson tell how their own careers are inseparable from Red Dirt. In an exclusive interview, Garth Brooks discusses the role Red Dirt played in launching his career, and he reminisces about the musicians and songwriters who gave him his first boost toward superstardom. Presales have included a series of bonus packages, as well as limited Artist’s Editions featuring Reckless Kelly, Wade Bowen, and Cody Canada & The Departed.
Red Dirt also includes the last interview the Turnpike Troubadours gave as a full band before their break. And, in early August 2020, shortly before the book’s deadline, Evan Felker reached out, offering his first public comments since Turnpike’s hiatus. All of his remarks made the book, a portion of which has been adapted and excerpted for Rolling Stone.
“I’m going to make music. At the end of the day, that’s what I feel I was put on Earth to do.”
Evan Felker had just spent a year off every grid imaginable. Yet in early August 2020, he handled the obvious “What’s next?” with the same charisma that commands attention from every eye in sold-out amphitheaters when he’s onstage.
“And I’ll tell you another thing. It’s really hard to get good at something,” Felker said, breaking into a full-throttle laugh. “Look, I’ve tried over the past year! And I learned: May as well stick to your day job.”
For two years, a dull roar — ranging from nonsense and rumors to speculation to an urgency to anoint bands as “the next Turnpike” — permeated Red Dirt and Texas circles, making it easy to overlook that same charisma and humor that made Felker and the Turnpike Troubadours the brightest stars the modern scene has known. Neither chance nor accident landed the artist and band at that summit. They got there with a dedication to their music, to one another, and to ceaseless work. At all times, they wore sincerity on their sleeves like a hallmark.
So when the Turnpike frontman and cofounder was thrown the most baseline question about how life is going right now, his voice and his tone made it clear he was sincere: “I’m good, man.”
Felker’s confidence in his own music had always been the bedrock of Turnpike — four (official) albums since 2010, built overwhelmingly on Felker’s songwriting, and an absurdly high number of songs to which fans know every word and chord — but it was hard not to hear those words from him in August and think anything other than, “He means it.”
In October 2018, Felker sat on an old leather lounge chair on the first floor of Irving Plaza in New York City.
One floor above, the Turnpike Troubadours’ equipment sat covered, pushed to the back of the stage in the two-story ballroom that dates to the 1940s, once carried the Fillmore brand, and has played host to Paul McCartney, the B-52’s, and Pope John Paul II before he was a pope.
Over the chords and swampy vocals of opener Charley Crockett running through sound check, and in and around a laugh with Turnpike bassist, vocalist, and cofounder R.C. Edwards at the notion that the 1,200-seat venue might be sold out that night, Felker did not mince words.
“This is all we want. I’d rather be driven by creativity than success. I want to make great art and to play with my pals.
“The best art I can make.”
Turnpike reached an orbit never before touched by Red Dirt. Founded in 2005 and remaining independent throughout the entire arc of the band while officially releasing only four albums, Turnpike is the first truly national Red Dirt band that pulled it off entirely while living in Oklahoma.
The Great Divide lived in Oklahoma throughout its late-1990s rise but still relied heavily on a record deal with Atlantic Records. Cross Canadian Ragweed took Red Dirt to greater heights in the 2000s, although front man Cody Canada moved to Texas just as the band’s popularity soared. Turnpike saw the door those bands opened and put six cowboy boots (one for each member) through it at once.
“When I started actually thinking that I could possibly do this, it was simply because of bands like Ragweed and Boland,” Felker said. “I would have never gone down this path without those guys, because they made it possible. Music to me seemed like you had to be either Garth Brooks or Nirvana. There was no in-between. But there’s actually this vast in-between, and there’s so much that can be done just being a bar band.”
In the straightforward story, Felker plays guitar and harmonica and writes most of the songs. Edwards plays bass, contributes vocals occasionally, and is also a frequent songwriter. They are joined by Kyle Nix on fiddle, Ryan Engleman on guitar, Hank Early on steel guitar, and Gabe Pearson on drums. Oklahoma permeates the band. The state flag is a permanent part of the group’s stage setup.
“We never left,” Edwards said of the Sooner State. “The other bands we talk about, most of them kind of moved down to Texas, and that was the smart move for them. But we’re still there with those people, and we still live the same lives, basically, that we always did.”
It was the bar band experience of Edwards, who hails from Tahlequah and cut his teeth, musically, in Tulsa, that showed Felker the way.
“I always dreamed of music. I asked for a guitar for Christmas for as long as I can remember, until I finally got one when I was a teenager,” Edwards said. “My buddies and I all had a punk-rock grunge thing like Nirvana or Rancid — I think everyone in our band at some point had either a punk or heavy-metal band or something in between. Then you kind of grow up and you turn into country bands.
“But the other thing is, the Great Divide, Ragweed, and Boland made it cool to play country music when you were young. When you’re a teenager, there’s a whole thing where country music isn’t cool sometimes, and they made it cool. So you started learning their music and their influences. That’s how I learned about Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and John Prine. They send you down that rabbit hole, and that’s what happened.”
How Turnpike got as big as it did is a testament to both talent and timing.
The best-known bands in the generation that preceded Turnpike cycled through their own music, especially as labels required new albums every 18 months. Songs they played when they were 20 got jettisoned when they turned 25. Songs that used to be staples of live shows either became unthinkable or pushed aside to make room for new music. But for Turnpike, it really did not happen that way.
With Turnpike, almost every song they have cut since 2010 is still fair game in set lists every night. This lays bare fans’ expectations before they take the stage, and the willingness to draw upon so many songs that have been around for a decade keeps an edge to the group’s sound.
“It’s a nice situation to be in, when your crowd has an expectation that they’re gonna have a really good time, because it actually takes a lot of the pressure off,” Early said. “As long as we get out there and we have a good time, they’re gonna be happy.”
Since then, pandemic aside, the status of Turnpike Troubadours has been the question hanging over Red Dirt. The band has been surrounded by both a consistent mix of genuine concern and tabloid-ish enthusiasm for scandal. It cannot overshadow the legacy of Turnpike, but it also cannot go unchecked.
The tabloids came first. Felker, who it needs saying again is a private person by nature, suddenly found himself under a microscope far beyond just message boards and Instagram comments. He split from his wife, Staci, and was linked in tabloids with Miranda Lambert, and the resulting saga was as public and as ugly as any celebrity, certainly from Red Dirt circles, has ever endured. It was compounded when you consider the band’s dedication to independence.
It also brought about a gut check on music fandom and how it can spiral out of control in a social media age.
“Stay out of the tabloids. Stay off the Internet,” Edwards said in that 2018 sit-down. “Your real friends that know you, they know you don’t want to talk about that stuff, and they don’t bother you about it. And you go do your own thing.”
Another cancellation — the day of a sold-out Chicago show with Johnathan Tyler & the Northern Lights and shortly before a headlining spot at Mile 0 Fest in Key West in January — cut differently.
At the festival, on the night Turnpike had been slated to headline, Cody Canada spoke up about Felker from the main stage, directly and intensely: “It’s a common misconception that as musicians, we’re bulletproof, and we’re not. Life catches up to us from time to time. And you, as fans, should let us chill the fuck out for a minute and let us catch our breath. Sometimes, on the roller-coaster of success, we have to step off. We need to work on ourselves for a minute. And then we’ll come back, as long as you’re here. We’re musicians. We’re a little brittle. We’re not gladiators.”
Turnpike regrouped and set off on a four-month run that was, purely technically speaking, as successful and intense as any ever played, culminating in a headlining gig in March at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at NRG Park for a crowd of 70,000.
Obviously, that is wonderful for fans, but it takes humanity out of the whole equation and essentially makes robots out of the people making music. Felker was still reeling from 2018, unhappy and with no outlet to get right by himself.
It bubbled back to the surface in May 2019, during a benefit in Guthrie, Oklahoma, for local fiddle player Byron Berline, who had lost his fiddle shop in a fire weeks before. During the show, which also featured Vince Gill, Felker was visibly off, missing entire lines and choruses in a painful set that ended with an abrupt and awkward exit from the stage. Another social media frenzy followed.
Less than three weeks later, the band announced an indefinite hiatus in a heavy note on Instagram. The Turnpike Troubadours, to borrow a Broadway term, went dark.
The band members found solace, mostly in Oklahoma. Edwards pressed forward with his band, R.C. and the Ambers. Engleman jumped onboard with Reckless Kelly, replacing David Abeyta on lead guitar. Kyle Nix wrote and recorded his first solo album (Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories was released in June).
Felker, though, took the path he needed to take, and it was a much longer one.
For more than a year, Felker kept a profile so low it seemed impossible. He surfaced once, in the spring, in a couple of pictures on social media of working on a ranch in Southeast Texas.
Nearly two years to the day after I had done the first interview for this book — a phoner with Willy Braun as he stood outside the Tractor Tavern in Seattle — I was two or three hours away from sending it to the printer.
“I stepped away from the road and got a clearer view of the world. I got back to just being me.” – Evan Felker
My phone rang, and I kicked it to voicemail. A minute or two later, I gave it a listen:
“Hi, Josh. This is Staci Felker. We have not met, but I just heard about your book and that you might be sending it to press soon. I just need to say that a lot has happened since 2019, and I’m hoping you get this in time to talk. Give me a call back.”
That’s why you’re reading this. An advance copy had made its way to Staci, and Evan said he was up for a chat (To answer the question that raises, yes, Staci and Evan are together and happy). I had no plan other than to listen and not interrupt. I sent him an electronic copy, and the next morning my phone rang, with him on the other end. He was ready for the “How are you?” that followed.
“The past year has been some of the best moments and best parts of my life,” Felker said.
“First and foremost, I found sobriety and recovery. And I stepped away from the road and got a clearer view of the world. I got back to just being me. I could not have ever done that while we were touring like we were.
“I had initially blamed everything on being on the road. But it’s only when you take the road out of the equation that you see you’ve still got problems. I was able to start fixing those.”
After finding success, Turnpike kept up a relentless tour schedule even when they would have been justified in cutting back.
The only way Felker was ever finding peace, personally and professionally, was by getting away from that. In a bit of fortunate timing, he is at that point. He is clear-headed about music again.
“I’ve been thinking so much about music lately,” Felker said, “how maybe I want to tour again. I’m trying to write songs again. I’ve taken a full, almost a year away from that.
“Music was the only thing I thought about for most of my adult life — or some version of it, whether it’s actually creating or touring or having a relationship with the band or who I was perceived to be versus who I actually was. All of these things, I needed to sort out.”
Excerpted from Red Dirt: Roots Music, Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere by Josh Crutchmer, scheduled for release on September 19, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Josh Crutchmer. Used by permission of Back Lounge Publishing. All rights reserved.
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