Looking back, it's hard to believe that Turnpike Troubadours have merely five years under their collective belts. If it seems like it's been longer than that to you, you're not alone. "It sure seems like it's been longer than five years," band leader Evan Felker said recently. "It seems like it's been five years since finished our last record, Diamonds & Gasoline, but when I look back, we were selling it out of our trunk in January of 2010, officially released it on 30 Tigers in August 2010."
Since then, the band has been touring heavily, playing roughly 200 shows a year, putting countless miles on the van, opening for whoever they can and playing as many of their own shows as possible. The band doesn't live solely on the road, though; as Felker pointed out, "We come back quite a bit, according to what we have going on."
Of course, that opportunity has presented itself more over the past two years as the band concentrated its touring on Oklahoma, Texas and the surrounding states, but that will be changing soon as the band prepares to release its third album, Goodbye Normal Street, next week and turn up the heat even more on a busy life on the road.
Glancing back, the band released its debut disc, Bossier City, in 2007 and was fighting for a chance to break into the Tulsa music scene. That break finally came as Brandon Clark invited the band to open for him at Mercury Lounge, effectively introducing the band to Tulsa and opening doors for them to become one of Tulsa's favorites.
The band returns to Mercury Lounge this Monday night, May 7, to celebrate the release of its latest disc, which officially comes out the next day, May 8. If you've followed the band over the past couple years, the move is in keeping with how they have operated in the past, countering bigger shows with a return to its home club.
When asked, Felker said "We got to the Mercury because we like the Mercury. They've always been good to us in the past, but we try to balance things out."
Ultimately, he shared that "We enjoy getting to work with them and at the end of the day it's fun for the band and it's fun for the people who go to our shows. That's definitely one of the big reasons we go back -- it gives the people who have been with us for a long time to not get lost in the masses."
While discussing the move, Felker also admitted it's a good way to stay connected with the fans as the band continues to grow: "There's certainly a validation when you like a band before everyone else, because you're emotionally invested in them. I've been there and understand that," he said.
With the release of Goodbye Normal Street, however, Turnpike Troubadours continues to grow creatively in strides that are almost as large as the group has grown in its following.
Sonically, the new disc has a gritty and organic sound, closer to the band's live feel. That's something that Felker is acutely aware of as well and it comes by design. "When we went in, we wanted to do something a little more organic and live feeling and I think we got that. Even the acoustic guitar sounds more like me playing it live and just beating on it. That was part of the recording process this time -- just get a good take and do everything very straight forward."
"We did do a lot of experimentation with harmonies, though, which can be tricky live, especially if you have a different sound guy each night. We felt like that someplace we shine, though, and felt proud of that and think it came out really well."
Beyond the band's progression sonically, however, which sees the band get more layered from its debut to Diamonds & Gasoline and more refined and focused with Goodbye Normal Street, Felker's songwriting has matured incredibly as well.
"The last record sounded like a lovesick guy in his 20's," he said, "probably because I was the narrator on the last one and that's really what that one was about."
"This one is more character-based, which is one of the things I've started to do. This record is more about telling 11 stories instead of telling one story over the course of the whole record."
That really is the strength of the new album. Yes, there are the lovesick, broken-hearted songs like "Keys to Paradise" and "Widower's Heart," but it focuses on different stories, different characters and how each deals with his or her heartbreak. The album also takes a more upbeat approach, more befitting the group's live presentation.
"Haggard did a pretty good job of that, though: finding something pretty in the mundane. That's what I try to do. It's all based on people or characters I know, so it's definitely about the common man and finding something beautiful in the everyday."
Although the band returns to Mercury Lounge on Monday night, the future promises to bring even bigger things and larger venues to the Troubadours' future. "We're getting a bus, so I assume that means we'll be working our asses off for 5-6months," Felker said. "That's part of the big plan, though, to expand the range we can play in; and if you want to play Tulsa one night and Nashville the next, then you need a bus."
"We still do the same thing," he assured me, however. "We just try to play a little slicker show and maybe not get too drunk," he laughed. "We just go out and play the songs that people want to hear."
With that focus and a level head that keeps the band grounded, even bigger things certainly await Turnpike Troubadours as it releases Goodbye Normal Street. Monday night's show is already sold out, but you can grab the new album online beginning Tuesday, May 8 as Turnpike Troubadours continues to shine as one of Oklahoma's best.
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