With front man Evan Felker sober and refocused, the Red Dirt group end a two-year-plus break and plot a new future. “I miss playing music,” Felker says, “but I don’t miss being drunk and telling the same stories over and over again”
Absent from the stage and on a self-declared “indefinite hiatus” since May 2019, Turnpike Troubadours — a band known as much for its volatility as for its literary songs and stomping melodies — have hit the most-anticipated reset button in Americana music. The group will headline the venerable Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside of Denver on May 14.
The concert is part of a full-fledged return. Expect more shows — including possible appearances ahead of the Red Rocks date (tickets go on sale Friday, Dec. 3.) — and album news as the Oklahoma six-piece knocks off the dust. During an exclusive, full-band Zoom interview with Rolling Stone, the members were quick to emphasize that they have missed simply being the Turnpike Troubadours.
“There’s a thing that happens when you’ve worked with someone for a long time that’s just magic,” Evan Felker, the band’s front man and songwriter, says. “The chemistry that we have, and being able to play off of each other without speaking or anything like that, it’s an amazing little phenomenon. And it happens for three or four minutes at a time, and I’m very appreciative of things like that now.”
Arriving at that appreciation, not just for Felker but the entire band, took three years of patience, uncertainty, and self-reflection. For nearly a year, the band played into a headwind of tabloid headlines and social media chaos focused on Felker’s personal life and a series of abrupt, high-profile concert cancellations that left fans and venues alike seeking answers. In the time since that 2019 pause, each member found opportunities to move on to something new, but not one gave up on Turnpike.
“We’re ready to get back to playing shows,” Ryan Engleman, lead guitarist, says.
Adds fiddle player Kyle Nix: “We’re getting the band back together!”
The Turnpike Troubadours are Felker, Nix, Engleman, R.C. Edwards on bass, Gabe Pearson on drums, and Hank Early on steel guitar and accordion. Founded in 2005 and touting four official albums, Turnpike rocketed from Oklahoma’s Red Dirt scene to the pinnacle of Americana music while taking delight in remaining independent.
I came into Turnpike’s orbit when all that unraveled. The last documented instance of the full band sitting for an interview, pre-hiatus, came in fall 2018, when they discussed their music with me for the book Red Dirt: Roots Music Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere. A few weeks before the book’s release in August 2020, Felker called. Since that interview, and the band’s hiatus, Felker needed me to know he had changed. He had become sober. He had married his wife, Staci, for the second time. He had gone off the grid, spending his days working on a ranch in Southeast Texas. I rewrote Turnpike’s portion of the book, and Rolling Stone excerpted Felker’s phone interview.
Since then, Evan and Staci welcomed a daughter, Evangelina Hartford Felker, in January 2021, and he contributed to a virtual fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation organized by his friend and Old 97’s front man Rhett Miller in October.
“Having Evan on the CF benefit sure was a sweet thing,” Miller tells Rolling Stone. “He had done this with me a few years back, in the Before Times, live and in person, and I had a feeling that asking him to sit down and sing a couple of songs while Staci filmed him would be an easy first step back into the public eye. He did great.”
After that, it seemed fitting to bookend my Turnpike chronicles with the new group interview. As it played out, each member said they stayed content, musically and personally, during the hiatus.
Nix was the most visible. He recorded and released Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories, a full-length solo album featuring, as he puts it, “An assortment of story songs, and a hoedown to top it off,” in June 2020. Nix wrote 15 of the album’s 17 tracks, and most members of Turnpike contributed. He formed and toured with his own band, the 38’s, which features Pearson on drums. For our Zoom chat, he pulled into a rest stop en route to a headlining show.
“I really just dove head-first into creating as much as I could,” Nix says. “It was a therapeutic outlet. That was all I wanted to do, and all I needed to do since we weren’t out on the road. But then you throw Covid in, and it was pretty tough… I fell into some rough times, started drinking a little too much. I finally had to pull my ass out of the mud and get my head straight and sober up.
“Creating has been therapy for me, trying to get better as a fiddle player, musician and songwriter,” he continues. “And getting back on the road with my band has really helped. I didn’t realize how much I actually missed it.”
In addition to playing drums for Nix, Pearson spent the hiatus and pandemic working toward a degree from Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
“I went back to college in fall of 2019, and I’m getting close to finishing my bachelor’s degree,” Pearson says. “Then Kyle called me, and we’ve toured since the start of this summer with his band, so it’s been ‘go to school and play music’ all day, every day for me.”
Edwards, like Nix, spent the hiatus fronting another band. RC and the Ambers has always been a side project for Edwards, but he toured heavily with the group since 2019, headlining in and around his hometown of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and finding prime spots at festivals such as the 2020 and 2021 installments of Mile 0 Fest in Key West, Florida.
“It’s been really fun spending a little more time, making a record for that project, and putting it all together a little more than it was before,” Edwards says. “It’s more organized now, and I’m happy with it, but at the same time I’m looking forward to getting back and doing [Turnpike] again.”
The record mentioned was Big Country, released in September. Early produced it in his home studio in Tahlequah, part of his immersion in the region’s music scene, with a major life event to cap it off: He got married.
“I moved to Tahlequah about a year before we went on hiatus,” Early says “So, I’ve enjoyed kind of dipping my toes in the Tulsa music scene. I’ve gotten to play with a lot of really cool people up there. And I’ve spent a lot of time in my home studio. I built it out a bit, and have produced a few records for people, start to finish, right here. R.C.’s was the first, but I’ve done four or five projects since then. I’d never done any of that before, so it was all a new experience.”
The dust had barely settled on Turnpike’s 2019 break when Reckless Kelly needed a guitar player to replace David Abeyta, who left the band after 19 years as part of Willy and Cody Braun’s Idaho-to-Austin roots-rock outfit. Engleman accepted and toured with Reckless for the final third of 2019, starting with an appearance at Reckless’s Braun Brothers Reunion festival in Challis, Idaho. He planned to stay on the road in 2020, when the band intended to tour behind their double album American Jackpot/American Girls, but the pandemic shelved that. When Reckless finally returned to touring in summer 2021, Engleman passed on his invitation (which led to Austin pedal-steel mainstay Geoff Queen joining the band).
“I was pretty fortunate to get picked up by Reckless,” Engleman says. “Those guys were great, and the amount of learning from a musical standpoint was pretty awesome. It was a lot, learning to cut back-and-forth between what I would do and what David did. It was really great, rolling along, and then Covid hit, and Reckless shut down.”
Willy Braun is the front man and primary songwriter for Reckless Kelly — who, along with Shovels & Rope, will join Turnpike on the May 14 bill at Red Rocks. He said Engleman’s personality made touring easy for Reckless after Abeyta’s departure.
“Nobody was going to play like David, so Ryan was really perfect,” Braun tells Rolling Stone. “He’s a versatile player who can rock out and play bluegrass, and offstage he is a really great hang. And that’s almost a bigger piece of the puzzle than being a great player, when you’re on the road a hundred days with someone.”
Engleman ended up spending the bulk of 2020 as a pandemic parent to his son, JR, currently just shy of 8 years old, and scratching a fishing itch.
“I hadn’t really been home since my kid was born,” Engleman says. “His school shut down, and we were trying to home-school like everybody, and it was a lot of strife for a while. But we kind of learned to live in that environment. Reckless called in February, and said, ‘OK, we’re ready to go if you are,’ and I was so conflicted about it, but eventually told them I wanted a bit more time for myself while I had it.”
Taking time for themselves was important to all of the members, but none more so than Felker.
After shifting so far out of the spotlight as to be nearly impossible to find, reconciling his marriage, getting sober, and becoming a parent, the cop-out would be to note that none of the band underwent more changes than Felker. But, typical of the contemplative front man, there’s more to it than that.
A wordsmith as a songwriter — the ease with which Felker shifts between the cut-with-a-blade introspection of, say, Jason Isbell, and the whimsical pontification of, say, Todd Snider, lends a range to Turnpike’s catalog that is unique even in Americana — Felker is also direct in conversation. When discussing his recent past and Turnpike’s future, he does so with sincerity and charisma, noting that “well-rounded” is a better way to describe him now than any before-and-after portrait would be.
“I have not been traveling. I stayed in one spot for about the past three years,” Felker says. “I head back up to Oklahoma to visit my family, and then I go back. I really did the opposite of the rest of these guys. I focused so much on my art and my creativity for so long that I let everything else slide.
“But I found sobriety and recovery, and that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I’m coming up on two years, completely sober and out of recovery. And a few days after that will be my daughter’s first birthday, so it’s all a big one,” he says. “I’ve learned so much about how my life was not well-rounded. I mean I knew that. I knew that it was just one thing. It started out just being music, and then eventually it was just drinking, and that was it for me.”
According to Felker, the only way he could envision a life leading a barnstorming Americana band again was if he could first create a life as far away from it as he could get.
“There were a lot of things, when I was stuck in a room in a rehab facility, that I thought I really am going to put some time into. I wanted to be a decent carpenter, or just pie-in-the-sky things like training cattle horses and stuff. Now, I’m really able to do all that! I’ve learned more than ever, this cowboying stuff has changed my life drastically.
“I’m really, really happy with the things I get to spend my time on now,” he continues. “I love music still, but it was time to spend a year or two and catch back up, because the person I presented myself to be — and who I thought I was — was lacking in some areas. Now, I feel like myself, and I’m proud of what I’m capable of doing. It’s a nice feeling, it truly is.”
Miller, who notably filled his solo and Old 97’s catalogs with hard-drinking tunes before sobering up himself, can not only relate, but also offers some insight into what Felker may expect when he is behind a microphone again.
“Speaking from personal experience, it’s a weird thing re-entering the world of music as a sober person,” Miller says. “Most of us who wind up having problems with booze or whatever get to that point because we are using substances as a crutch to help us deal with the pressures of the job. Those pressures don’t go away once we sober up, but we discover that there are healthy ways to deal with them. And guess what? Those healthy ways wind up being a lot more effective than just drowning our insecurities in booze. I love Evan like a brother and he knows that I will always have his back. I’m also a Turnpike fan and am so glad that they’re going to be back together again.”
Felker, for his part, also recognizes the life he currently lives is conducive to raising his daughter — Evie for short — alongside Staci.
“Being a parent, so far, for me — especially since I’m in one spot all the time; in the past year, I’ve probably been away from my daughter maybe 10 or 12 nights, of her entire life — is easy to do, if you’re around,” Felker says. “It would be trickier if I was gone a lot more. That said, Staci still has to take up all the slack. But most of what I do is around the house. I spend my time within a mile of home every day, so I always feel like I’m close.”
“For 10 years, I was in a bar every night. If you expose yourself to that long enough, you’re going to wind up needing some help. I know I did.”
When Turnpike returns to the road, fans should expect a more measured approach to tours than the “any gig, any time” outlook the band adhered to for a decade. They’ll certainly aim to find as much time at home as they find under spotlights.
“We have to keep things well-rounded,” Felker says. “Life has to have some sort of balance, otherwise it’ll spin off into outer space. We were in the bars — for 10 years, I was in a bar every night. If you expose yourself to that long enough, you’re going to wind up needing some help. I know I did. I don’t miss it. I don’t miss that. I miss playing music, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t miss being drunk and telling the same stories over and over again, not at all.”
To facilitate such a balance, the band has turned to New York-based TMWRK management, who guide the careers of Sturgill Simpson, Katie Pruitt and STS9, along with DJ and EDM artists such as Diplo and Cashmere Cat. But the simple act of assembling a team first meant bringing the group’s six members back into the fold.
That happened in mid-November, when an afternoon of raucous laughter cut right through the hiatus and marked a fresh start for six people who, it turns out, really enjoy hanging out with one another.
“We all got together last week, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had that good of a time in that little space of time,” Engleman says. “Just giggling and cracking jokes, and seeing people you love for the first time in two, three years. Everybody’s happy and having a good time.”
If fans anticipated a drawn-out, detailed end to this chapter, the camaraderie won out.
“It all really did just fall into place again,” Nix says. “We didn’t miss a beat. It’s funny how that works.”
Since hitting pause, Turnpike have hung over the worlds of Red Dirt and Texas music like a haze. Festivals they would normally headline went on without the band. And while it’s true the pandemic likely delayed this comeback, the fact remains that the genre will have gone nearly three years without the band when it hits the stage again.
According to Departed front man Cody Canada, one of few Red Dirt artists to have experienced heights similar to those of Turnpike Troubadours (when he fronted Cross Canadian Ragweed) and turmoil similar to Turnpike’s (when Ragweed publicly split in 2010), Red Dirt without the band has not felt the same.
“Turnpike is very important to Red Dirt for one reason: They’re a great band with intelligent writing,” Canada tells Rolling Stone. “There’s no filler. No fodder. It’s poetry in motion. It’s music that makes you fall in love and dance. There’s no gimmick.”
For their part, the Turnpike Troubadours expect all of the above — the magic, the poetry and the connection — to fall into place the first time they face a crowd again.
“The energy of the crowd … I’m so excited to experience that again,” Early says. “This rabid energy, to go out on the stage and have all that directed at you, it’s amazing.”
“I won’t ever take another moment on stage for granted with those guys,” Nix says. “On stage in general, it’s such a blessing to be able to do something you love so much. To do it with guys that have been through everything together, I’ll leave it all out there, for sure.”
Felker recognizes that part of Turnpike being ready for their fans again also means embracing fans who never stopped being ready for Turnpike. He said he’s looking forward to the spotlight, when it comes, and sharing it with his five bandmates.
“We’re the same guys. We’re not even that much older. In fact, in some ways we might be younger,” Felker says. “We’ve also always had pretty neat chemistry with the crowd for the vast majority of our shows. And I do miss that, because that’s not something you can really replicate in life. There’s nothing else that gives you that.”
Josh Crutchmer is the author of the book Red Dirt: Roots Music, Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere (Back Lounge Publishing, 2020).
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