Evan Felker and The Turnpike Troubadours Return To Stardom

When a band proclaims an ‘indefinite hiatus’ from making music, it usually means they’re gone for good. When the Turnpike Troubadours made the fateful announcement, it appeared they might go the way of Blink-182, OutKast or The Beatles. A band that once had the world in their hands, never to hit a stage together again.

Bassist RC Edwards, Lead Guitarist Ryan Engleman, Fiddler Kyle Nix, Drummer Gabriel Pearson and Multi-instrumentalist Hank Early make up the back end of the Turnpike Troubadours. But it’s no question that the heart and soul is frontman Evan Felker, who also writes the majority of Turnpike’s songs. 

Their very first project established the band as a force to be reckoned with in the independent and red dirt country sphere. Titled “Diamonds and Gasoline,” the album began with “Every Girl,” describing a boundless infatuation, followed immediately by “7 & 7,” in which a relationship turned sour has left the singer completely alone.

“I had no clue I’d be the boy who your mama warned you about,” Felker sings on “7 & 7.”

It’s in this dichotomy that the Turnpike Troubadours can be understood. In an era where Nashville’s mainstream was plagued by ‘bro country’ and love was understood largely in terms of one-night stands, the authenticity of Felker’s songwriting caught the ears of a small but vocal minority of country fans.

The band’s second album, “Goodbye Normal Street,” cemented them as something more than a one hit wonder. On the song “Southeastern Son,” Turnpike takes on a common trope in country music—the American soldier. But rather than a jingoistic snap-track made for radio, the protagonist joins the military to find opportunities outside of his rural community and is immediately sent to the front lines. The song concludes with the singer writing a letter from Afghanistan to his mother. He looks at the moon and asks her to leave the porch light on for when he comes home.

As a blazing instrumental and chorus takes the song to a close, it’s left to listeners to figure out why the song ends there, why Felker felt he’d said all that he needed to say.

As the band released its junior project, a self-titled album, they began to make waves outside of Texoma. Leaving rural bars behind, Turnpike traveled to bigger venues around the country, playing festivals and opening for huge acts including Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert.

In “Good Lord Lorrie,” a concert staple and probably Turnpike’s most widely recognizable song, Felker spins a tale of a couple who run off together to escape disapproving parents. The rush of escape and young love turns slowly to resentment over difficult, paycheck-to-paycheck living, and the singer falls to whiskey as an escape. In the final verse, Lorrie leaves, seemingly for good, as the singer watches in a detached, drunken haze. 

Much the same would follow the Turnpike Troubadours. In 2016, fans expressed concern for Felker after he repeatedly appeared onstage too inebriated to perform. As the calendar advanced, Turnpike tour dates were plagued by cancellations, mysterious last-minute no-shows and offstage drama. Finally, after a disastrous performance featuring a disheveled, slurring Felker forgetting the words to his songs and wandering aimlessly around the stage, the aforementioned hiatus was made official and the Turnpike Troubadours went their separate ways,

The members of the band went mostly dark in the following months, but the news that came pointed in the right direction. Early, Nix and Edwards started up solo projects. Engleman signed on as the lead guitar player for Reckless Kelly. Pearson got his college degree. Most importantly, Felker made the courageous decision to step away from music entirely and check himself into rehab

The band announced their reunion concert at the end of 2021 at the Red Rocks Amphitheater, and when ticket sales opened, prices immediately shot to over $400. Subsequent shows would crash venue websites and send Turnpike tickets into the stratosphere, all while the band was scheduling arenas across the nation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Turnpike are currently the most popular independent country music act, all without releasing music in half a decade.

The latter would change May 5 when Turnpike released their first music in six years. Titled “Mean Old Sun,” the song is vintage Turnpike, with a tight instrumental melody, evocative songwriting and Felker’s expressive voice at the forefront telling a seemingly autobiographical story of a troubled man leaving his life behind and going to work to clear his head. With the single came an announcement of an album in August 2023 and a slew of new tour dates. The Turnpike Troubadours are officially back.

“I’d never really played with a clear head in my life,” Felker told Rolling Stone’s Josh Crutchmer. “Getting to do that and having that level of confidence is very fulfilling.”

Turnpike’s 2017 track, “The Housefire,” features the same characters as “Good Lord Lorrie,” but takes a remarkably different tone. In the song, Lorrie and the singer have reconciled after their dramatic split. Even when a blaze engulfs the couple’s home, prompting a return to a tough life on the road, the singer resists his vices, determined to take care of his loved ones and stay on the straight and narrow. 

As Felker and the Turnpike Troubadours return to the stage, fans hope that the same ending is in store for their favorite band.