Fifteen Favorites: The Collaborative Turnpike Troubadours Edition

With news of the Turnpike Troubadours’ reunion coming two years since their hiatus and four years since the release of their last album, I think it goes without saying that, in 2022, all eyes will be on this band’s next move.

Now, for those that have been scratching their heads wondering what all the fuss has been about, for one, you’re coming to the right place for this. But to establish a brief history, the Turnpike Troubadours are an Oklahoma-based band that have released four (official) albums and built their following primarily off of lead singer Evan Felker’s songwriting … although, even that doesn’t quite do it justice. In truth, this is a group that works best because of the true band element, where every member feels essential to what makes the magic happen. And while controversy swirled around them in the very late 2010s – which eventually led to a hiatus in mid-2019 – they didn’t let it define them.

Beyond their welcome return last year, this is also a band that turned the Red Dirt sub-genre into a national entity throughout their initial run; and they did it while remaining completely independent. Bands like The Great Divide and Cross Canadian Ragweed set the wheels in motion, but the Turnpike Troubadours took it all even further. Premature as it may be, what with only four (technically five) albums to choose from, it feels appropriate to reflect on the band’s career thus far. Joining me today is a friend as equally excited to dive into and remember the band’s music as much as I am – Megan Bledsoe, of Country Exclusive and Farce the Music. Be sure to let us know what your favorite Turnpike Troubadour songs are, too!

Let’s get started.


All songs written by Evan Felker unless otherwise noted.

No. 15, “Wrecked” (written by Evan Felker and RC Edwards)

We’re keeping it simple with this first entry, arguably one of the most upbeat and cheerful songs about heartbreak crafted yet. It’ll be a theme we’ll revisit for several more entries on all lists – pretty much all of them, actually – where the misspent expectations of a failed relationship leave Felker stranded, heartbroken, and confused where to go from there. If anything, it’s a track that flips the script and sees the hellraiser get what’s coming to him. Coupled with fantastic production courtesy of the sharper kick and prominence of the pedal steel and fiddle interplay, you have a track that could have likely been a radio hit in a different time. – Zackary Kephart

No. 15, “Quit While I’m Ahead”

Jamie Lin Wilson once told me that the music of the Turnpike Troubadours consists of “sad songs that also make you want to party.” This song certainly encapsulates that sentiment, for no one but Evan Felker could sing so cheerfully about being “busted, broken, bent and beaten, ‘bout halfway to dead” and make me want to dance and sing along. – Megan Bledsoe

No. 14, “Evangeline” (written by Evan Felker and John Fullbright)

While I’d argue there’s a uniform quality and consistency to all of the band’s albums, if there’s anything that separates early works like Diamonds and Gasoline or Goodbye Normal Street from what came afterward, it’s a sense of generally youthful, reckless abandonment that paved the way for more grounded, lived-in, and mature songs. With a lot of the band’s early work, even if the lyrics are detailed and the one-liners stick out – in this case, “And the oldest violin could never whine a melody as sorrowful as mine” – it’s always implied that these endings of relationships are from some sort of self-destructive tendencies on both sides. And yet, against the melancholic blast of harmonica supported by the organ and banjo plucking in the low-end, you can’t help but feel sympathetic anyway, especially when Felker’s fried-out delivery carries natural regret to it. – ZK

No. 14, “Diamonds and Gasoline”

It is rare for a Turnpike song not to feature rollicking fiddles and electric guitars, but all this song needs is an acoustic guitar, hints of dobro, and Evan Felker’s naked sorrow. The characters in Turnpike songs are often plagued by self-doubt, but perhaps none more so than the narrator of “Diamonds and Gasoline,” as he laments, “if I can’t afford you, darlin’, then I can’t afford to dream.” – MB

No. 13 (both lists), “Ringing in the Year”

Fitting for a year still young and new. Fitting, too, that on a song caught in a time where people look forward to new beginnings, Felker reflects on a past relationship that was always doomed to fail due to each partner’s explosive tendecies. And yet, to build off a previous point, Felker can’t help but look back on it all with a slight fondness and sadness as he finds himself in a new place in life and blames himself even more for not putting enough effort in to salvage what was left of the relationship. And in the end, against those hard-charged guitar tones, none of it matters; she’s still gone either way and has likely moved on anyway. – ZK

Turnpike songs are often a study in heartbreak and regret, but this one is a little different. Instead of ruminating on his own mistakes as he so often does, Felker questions whether they gave up too soon and whether she misses him too. Maybe no one was at fault, or maybe they were both at fault, and this ambiguity makes the song unique. – MB

No. 12, “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” (written by Evan Felker and RC Edwards)

Sometimes you have to reflect on past transgressions, and sometimes you have to lean in on them with a devil-may-care attitude while you’ve still got time left to make the most of it. Not that there isn’t regret present, mind you – both verses end on pretty harrowing notes for every character involved – but there’s just such an adrenaline rush to this song’s construction, from the rickety acoustics, to the faster-paced, snaky groove, to a fiddle that plays a glorious hoedown, just as Felker wants. It’s one of those songs that dares you to enjoy it, and though the writing is usually the star of the show, this is a moment in the band’s discography where I just love it for its pure ferocity in tone and execution. It comes and goes in a moment, but it leaves its mark, all the same. – ZK

No. 12, “Easton & Main” (written by RC Edwards)

The best word I can use to describe this song is charming. It’s charming that the narrator here paints Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a glamorous city akin to New York or L.A., and laments that a Tulsa girl will never want anything to do with a country boy like himself. But as an Oklahoman, I can say that while it is charming, it is also an exceedingly accurate characterization of how this character would view himself and the world. The sense of place that permeates almost every Turnpike song is never more present than here on this ode to the Cain’s Ballroom floor. – MB

No. 11, “Down on Washington”

I’ve always claimed 2012’s Goodbye Normal Street as my favorite Turnpike Troubadours album, but I may now have to go with the more fan-favorite pick of Diamonds and Gasoline. There’s such a hardscrabble edge to the writing and production, and “Down on Washington” is one of many excellent moments to showcase it. It’s another song where Felker is on the edge of losing it all, and try as he may, he’s likely not going to win back a partner ready to leave. On top of the deeper atmospheric electric groove that characterizes the song’s sharp edges, this is another moment that dares you to sympathize with Felker’s plight, mostly because, at the end of the day, he may be a fool, but one still capable of loving another person. I haven’t highlighted this band’s tight knack for melodic flow and interplay yet, but this is one of the most solid examples of everything coming together perfectly. – ZK

No. 11, “7 Oaks” (written by RC Edwards)

My No. 11 and 10 selections are really interchangeable for me, because it is the one-two punch of “7 Oaks” and “Doreen” on Turnpike’s self-titled album that just renders me speechless every time. “7 Oaks” is first in the sequencing, so it came first here. Both are excellent showcases of the band’s instrumentation, and back to back, they create a force that I cannot put into words. And again, here’s a song about financial ruin, and somehow I want to dance. – MB

No. 10, “Gone, Gone, Gone”

I’m out of ways to say how adept Evan Felker is at communicating broken-down characters worthy of sympathy without repeating myself, but I will say that sometimes, all it takes for the magic to happen is him at the front of the mix and production that aims for restraint rather than hard-charged splendor. The band has been billed as everything from Americana to southern-rock, but at the end of the day, to me, with songs like these, they’re just a damn good tried and true country band. It’s one of the few moments in their discography that’s more poetic than straightforward, but the details are still there, and Felker is still self-aware enough to know he’s to blame for his own destruction. And that it comes before a certain other track I’ll explore later on … well, let’s just say we’re only getting started with the downward spirals. – ZK

No. 10, “Doreen” (written by Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond)

If you weren’t on your feet after hearing “7 Oaks,” you will be after hearing “Doreen.” These two songs alone make Turnpike’s case for using the fiddle not as a melodic instrument, but rather as a rhythmic instrument akin to the lead guitar. Even though it’s a cover, the Troubadours make it their own with the live feel and stellar instrumentation. – MB

No. 9, “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues”

I actually spotlighted this song for an earlier feature here, and to reiterate why I think it’s one of the more underrated selections in the band’s discography, it’s a fast-paced hellraiser in the same vein as “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead,” but also one that’s always grabbed me off the solidly anchored galloping groove driven by blasts of harmonica and banjo. Granted, it’s not quite the straightforward story song one has come to expect from this band. It’s an overblown standoff between friends that’s damn-near theatrical in what it’s trying to go for, where the best I’ve ever been able to interpret the actual tipping point is jealousy between them … which eventually leads to a gunfight. In other words, the devil’s in the fine details, indeed. – ZK

No. 9, “Pipe Bomb Dream” (written by Jonny Burke, Evan Felker, and RC Edwards)

This song didn’t stand out for me at all until one day, it hit me that this is the tale of Timothy McVey, convicted in the OKC bombing of 1995. Again capturing that wonderful sense of place, the band tells a story unique to their home state and adds intrigue by doing so from the perspective of the guilty. – MB

No. 8, “Gin, Smoke & Lies”

Yes, the Turnpike Troubadours really did lead Goodbye Normal Street with a kick-stomping, sinister-sounding, and flat-out awesome cheating song with a groove reminiscent of “We Will Rock You,” of all things, and made it work. All of which is to say that, for once, Felker’s character is in control of the situation, heartbroken over his partner’s infidelity, for sure, but also unwilling to put up with any further transgressions from here on out. It’s a nasty little song, and while there’s plenty of songs where Felker sketches characters who know when to beg for sympathy and empathy, this is a moment that rides its darkness all the way down. – ZK

No. 8, “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead”

This is the song I want played at my funeral. It advises us all to live life to the fullest and die having fun. As Felker says, “Let’s leave the world laughin’ when our eulogies are read.” – MB

(Lucky) No. 7, “7 & 7”

I mean, it’s one of their most iconic songs, and, given that it stretches nearly five minutes long, one of Evan Felker’s most passionate deliveries of the hard-edged lifestyle to date. Unlike other entries I’ve already described here, this is a moment where the heartbreak comes unexpectedly and Felker has to grapple with parts of himself he didn’t think had contributed to part of the problems between him and a partner, but did. Things were easier at 17, sure, but you don’t get to live in that mindset forever, and eventually you have to grow up. It’s a moment where Felker realizes he hasn’t and has to sift through those complex emotions. And yet, it’s always suggested that he’s just trying to find that old familiar feeling rather than actually move on himself. Which, naturally, contributes to a lot of the themes explored on those first two albums, but this is an opus in the band’s discography that still stands as one of their finest, even as they have been forced to grow up a little themselves. – ZK

No. 7, “Evangeline”

If you thought “Whiskey Lullaby” was the most depressing song of our generation, I invite you to consider the misery of the narrator of “Evangeline.” This is such a graphic picture of heartbreak and self-loathing, that it would almost qualify as parody but for the raw, aching delivery of Evan Felker. His anguish can be summed up in one soul-crushing line: “The oldest violin could never whine a melody as sorrowful as mine.” – MB

No. 6, “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)” (written by Evan Felker, Jonny Burke, and Ralph Casey Edwards)

This is one of those songs I think could have only come from the band’s most recent album, a tempered, wistful remembrance of a past relationship, and one where Felker’s character actually gets that needed second chance, if only for a brief time. She’s a far more successful old flame, and he just hopes, if anything, that they shut the door on the past, play the encounter in a metaphorical major key, and reminiscence on the good times before she leaves again. There’s a grounded sense of camaraderie present here that I think plays well to the band’s strengths, especially against little more than a faint but rollicking dobro accompaniment and hints of accordion and fiddle. Melancholic enough to let the regret shine, but hopeful enough to know that both partners have patched up whatever was left between them and are in better places in life now, too. – ZK

No. 6, “Gin, Smoke, Lies”

Cheating songs are a dime a dozen in country music, but this one stands apart because of the imagery of the birds: the mourning dove, the carousing rooster, and the laughing crow to symbolize the dire fate of the unfaithful. Also, the banjo riff is killer. – MB

No. 5, “Good Lord Lorrie”

I’m entering the part of my list where even if we’re exploring similar themes of past songs, we’re now exploring the magic the band can mine when they lean on well-developed, compelling narratives. I won’t necessarily dive into the thread linking the titular character to others within the Turnpike Troubadours universe, but I will say that, beyond sporting a potent hook further bolstered by those well-timed blasts of harmonica, “Good Lord Lorrie” is the moment where the most down-and-out character is probably the most likable. She plays him, pardon the pun, like a fiddle, and he knows he doesn’t fit within her inner circle – confirmed by him being shunned by her family –  and while she aims for a mere fling with him, he wants it to be so much more, even if it hurts him. And damn, it does. – ZK

No. 5, “The Mercury”

Jimmy and Lorrie, the dynamic, recurring characters of Turnpike lore, are arguably never portrayed so fascinatingly as they are here, drinking at Tulsa’s Mercury Lounge. Jimmy is the “hayseed dressed up like James Dean,” jealous and disgruntled because Lorrie, portrayed as a heartbreaker destined to wreck the town, is flirting with our narrator. You can see it going down like this in any bar on any given Friday night. – MB

No. 4, “The Housefire”

It’s a little too easy to get outraged on social media these days, but upon seeing a comment that stated how the band’s music wouldn’t be the same now that Evan Felker has found sobriety, my initial thoughts were “gross” and “no shit.” And I’d wager a bet that said person never heard “The Housefire,” a song about finding clarity and gratitude in the wake of having everything fall apart due to a natural disaster, and one that came on an album released a few years before their hiatus. Suffice it to say, the music will be just fine. Now, focusing squarely on the song itself, I love the confidence that comes through in the sentiment and more striking production, where our protagonist is confident he’ll find his way for both him and his family, but is still shaken nonetheless. It’s a step toward maturity to appreciate. – ZK

No. 4, “Long Hot Summer Day” (written by John Hartford)

I reached the pinnacle of music nerddom, when, alone in a house in Alabama with five Alexa devices, I instructed them to play this song at full volume. Hearing the fiddles echoing all around me was one thing, but that moment when the electric guitar kicked in throughout the house was indescribable. I stood there singing along from 800 miles away about the Illinois River which runs through Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and which I have floated so many times in canoes and rafts, and I have never felt a sense of home so tangibly. This song will always hold a special place in my heart because of those three minutes. – MB

No. 3, “The Bird Hunters”

This is a song a lot of Turnpike Troubadours fans would have at the top of their lists, and I can easily see why. Beyond reading more like a short novel akin to what you’d expect from, say, James McMurtry, it’s a song where no word is wasted and the sprawling narrative has so many nuggets to appreciate. If anything, the scene sketched is pretty simple. Two old friends rekindle their friendship through quail hunting in Cherokee County after the protagonist’s return from Tulsa, having failed to chase bigger dreams with a woman he thought loved him. And while the friend’s attention is focused on the hunt, he can tell his buddy’s attention is elsewhere, even if he tries to reassure him that it was all for the best. I think what I love – beyond the, as always, phenomenal fiddle accompaniment that only gains more prominence as the story progresses and the tension accelerates – is what isn’t said. The friend, Danny, thinks this hunting trip is the shot of rejuvenation his buddy needs, but little does he know our protagonist has used it to hatch a scheme on how to win his partner back. And whether the hunting metaphor for an animal that’s flown away never to return is intentional, ironic, or something else entirely, it just makes for an excellent story song.  – ZK

No. 3, “The Funeral” (written by Evan Felker and Mike McClure)

Songwriters looking for a study in character development should give special attention to this tale of the prodigal son returning home to Oklahoma City for his father’s funeral. From the description of Jimmy as a “counterfeit James Dean” to his girlfriend as a “burned-out Bettie Page” to the family as “decent people who didn’t like their kind,” this song illustrates that, in the right hands, the anecdote of a funeral can be a window into a family’s entire history. – MB

No. 2, “Pay No Rent”

At this point, I feel like my love for the songs stem from two simple reasons. Half because this band’s approach to both restrained and rollicking yet wonderfully organic midtempo country just hits a personal sweet spot, and half because they tackle universal themes with powerfully specific and personal details. This song is a tribute to Evan Felker’s late aunt, but it also works as another excellent song in their discography to capture a faded relationship with a fair amount of affection rather than bitterness over its end. Again, it’s worth noting that the band refined this maturity on their latest project, and with new beginnings for what’s ahead, I think it will be the right step forward. It’s just an earnestly sweet song that doesn’t require a lot of words to capture its resonance. – ZK

No. 2, “The Bird Hunters”

The character development of “The Funeral” and “The Mercury.” The sense of place captured on “Easton & Maine” and “Long Hot Summer Day.” The longing and regret of “Evangeline” and the wistful hope of “Ringing in the Year” and “Quit While I’m Ahead.” They all come together in this five-minute opus, as the narrator hunts with his buddy in Cherokee County while reminiscing about his near marriage to a Tulsa woman. A stunning piece of songwriting that captures everything special about the Turnpike Troubadours. – MB


Before we unveil our respective No. 1 hits, we’d like to round off a few honorable mentions that just missed the cut but deserve your attention all the same.

For me:

“Unrung”

“Every Girl” (written by Evan Felker and John Fullbright)

“1968”

“Whole Damn Town”

“Diamonds and Gasoline”

“Easton & Main”

For Megan:

“The Winding Stair Mountain Blues”

“Pay No Rent”

“Fall out of Love” (written by RC Edwards)

“Good Lord Lorrie”

And for both of us:

“A Tornado Warning”


And now, our No. 1 picks:

No. 1, “The Funeral” (written by Evan Felker and Mike McClure)

The thing about most characters in Turnpike Troubadours songs, especially in the ones we’ve discussed, is that we’re really not supposed to like them. They’re self-destructive by nature and often succumb to their own vices. At the same time, they’re often aware of that and want to make amends. It’s just usually too late for them to recover, hence why, at least for me, they’re always able to mine sympathy … maybe even empathy. Still, there’s always a hopeful optimism that shades the intent behind them, and while the sound and production is often enough to win me and many fans over, I always appreciate how tightly crafted their songs are as a whole.

It feels weird, then, to say that “The Funeral” is my favorite song of theirs, mostly because we once again have a lead character, Jimmy, who plays the prodigal son returning home for the first time in years for his father’s funeral. Only, he’s unlikable. He’s a counterfeit James Dean who’s only there because he feels like he has to be … and also because he plans to claim his late father’s gun to take with him. It’s tense all around, from the well-developed riff and groove to a well-timed blazing solo at its climax, all the way to the content, where the family is as excited to see Jimmy as he is to be back home. And yet, there’s also something to be said for that line, “ain’t nothing like a family to make you feel so damn alone,” where once again the subtext is what speaks volumes. Was Jimmy pushed to be the way he is now due to a strict upbringing, or was he bound for that path naturally? A lot of it is up to us to decide, but I know for now, this somehow captures the utter hell of a family reunion and tells another story for the ages. It’s my favorite Turnpike Troubadours song … you know, until they make the next one. – ZK

No. 1, “Long Drive Home” (written by Evan Felker and Jonny Burke)

Here we have another narrator struggling with heartbreak and regret. But the beauty of this song is the way he is pleading with his lover not to give up, to work on the relationship, and to realize that the only love worth keeping is one for which we have labored and bled. He says that people have no staying power and choose to leave when times get hard, but that is not the mark of true, enduring love. The whole thing is encapsulated in one of the greatest lines in all of music: “lovers, they march by, but they ain’t like you and I. They all wanna be Hank Williams, but they don’t wanna have to die.” That lyric stops me in my tracks every time, even after six years, and it is because it continues to speak to my soul so deeply and personally that this is, without question, my favorite Turnpike song. – MB

4 thoughts on “Fifteen Favorites: The Collaborative Turnpike Troubadours Edition

  1. Wonderful stuff, guys! This was an absolute pleasure to read.

    While I’ve heard all of their albums over the years, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t possess the inside-and-out familiarity of Turnpike’s discography than most everyone else does. There’s no question that Evan Felkner is one of the very best songwriters active today.

    Off the top of my head, I’d say “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)”, “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead”, “Long Drive Home”, “Easton & Main”, “Bossier City” and “The Bird Hunters” would be some of my favorites. Their 2015 self-titled album was my introduction to them and is my personal favorite set of theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good stuff! Megan – I miss reading Country Exclusive, but it’s good to see your writing elsewhere.

    Similar to Andy, I’m not a super-fan, but I do enjoy their music quite a bit and am fairly familiar with most of it (but I did listen to all four albums in order to properly comment here). My favourite album is “A Long Way From Your Heart” and the back half of that album, in particular (starting with “Pay No Rent”) is such a great string of songs. As you’ll see below, most of those songs from the back half of that album make my Top 10.

    My Top 15 are:

    15. Shreveport
    14. Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead
    13. Whole Damn Town
    12. Call a Spade a Spade
    11. Quit While I’m Ahead
    10. Evangeline
    9. Down Here
    8. Pay No Rent
    7. Old Time Feeling (Like Before)
    6. Long Drive Home
    5. Pipe Bomb Dream
    4. Easton & Main
    3. Every Girl
    2. Oklahoma Stars – I love Jamie Lin Wilson’s version as well
    1. The Hard Way

    Liked by 2 people

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