The first time I found about the Turnpike Troubadours was about two years ago, when I heard the song “Every Girl” on the radio. The instant I heard it I was hooked. Here was a perfectly written song, bittersweet and beautiful, set to a unique brand of red dirt country. Really, this is a pretty good description of all of the Troubadours’ 2010 album Diamonds & Gasoline, which is probably my favorite country album ever (no exaggeration). Good country music is a unique animal in terms of critical assessment, but (with all due respect to former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart), I know it when I hear it.
As far as I’m concerned, the Turnpike Troubadours are the pinnacle of “it”. This is the perfect country band. As you would expect from a band who calls themselves troubadours, they are storytellers at heart. Most of their material is from bits and pieces of personal experience, but even if it wasn’t, singer Evan Felker could sell the crap out of it. Felker’s voice and assured confidence belies his age as he sings about love, war, home, and everything encountered on long road trips in between. It’s true the Troubadours are known for relentlessly touring their brand of country, which legitimizes the other half of their name.
As good as Diamonds was, newest release Goodbye Normal Street is just as prodigious. The songwriting is impeccable and every song keeps things fresh – not a lag or lull to be found here. There are strong hints of continuity from Diamonds and Gasoline; the zydeco flair on “Morgan Street” evokes a similar ambience as “Shreveport,” and “Good Lord Lorrie” merges all the good things from “7 & 7” and “Diamonds & Gasoline” into one sharply bittersweet song. “Blue Star” would be another easy fit for Diamonds, but it works well with the dynamic on Goodbye Normal Street too.
“Lorrie” is one of the strongest songs on the album, and although the menacing bluegrass of “Gin, Smoke, Lies” might be more marketable as a lead single, “Lorrie” proves that the Troubadours are at their absolute best when singing reminiscences of love that didn’t quite work out. There’s a potent haunting wistfulness in these songs that sets the Troubadours apart from red dirt mainstays Randy Rogers and Josh Abbott, who just can’t write the same songs without a heavy dose of cheese (bless their hearts).
As “red dirt” as these Oklahoma boys may be, they’re influenced by a range of music and can pull off strong bluegrass, cajun, and folk accents at will. Lyrically, they are already strongly reminiscent of folk/country legends Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen, which is high praise for a band just on its third album. You’ll find a possible nod to Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night” in “Morgan Street,” which borrows the chord progression and the line “liquor on his breath, trouble on his mind.” If intentional, it’s a fitting tribute, paying homage to the small town background of the Troubadours’ members. The fuse to the fiery track “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” is lit by an intro that sounds like Tony Rice himself lending a hand on guitar, and by the time the solo kicks in, you’d swear it was Brad Paisley himself plucking the hell out of his signature Telecaster.
Just when you think the Troubadours might have a song about playing nice with girls, you realize that “Call a Spade a Spade,” the charming duet with Jamie Wilson, is the sweetest sounding song about cheating on a spouse that you’ve ever heard. It’s especially difficult to remember that this is a young band when Felker pulls out a weary stripped down song like “Empty as a Drum”. Perhaps love is never simple in the Troubadours’ world, but it nets out in compelling songs that really pull at you.
There’s probably not going to be a better country record this year than Goodbye Normal Street, so whether country is your “thing” or not, I encourage you to give it a chance. These aren’t just good country songs, they’re great songs regardless of genre; honest songs about life, written from the heart and from heartache. If you believe in hard work and good music, there’s nothing to dislike about the Turnpike Troubadours or their latest work.
(1) Gin, Smoke, Lies
(2) Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead
(5) Call a Spade a Spade
(6) Morgan Street
(8) Good Lord Lorrie
(9) Empty as a Drum