Disclaimer: I’m no music critic; we’ve got brilliant people like Joe Gross for that (hi Joe). But sometimes I just blab a lot about stuff that strikes me (this guy’s neon artwork, my old car dying, a photo of Mark Twain when he was 13). Thank you for hanging with me. And thank you Jim Flammia for pointing me to the background stuff; please yell at me ASAP if I got things wrong, and I’ll fix it.
Pulling out of work one evening a year ago or so, I flipped on Chris Mosser’s “Roadhouse” show on KVET, and within a few notes, I swerved over and started writing down lyrics so I could look up the song later. Three minutes after I got home, I owned the Turnpike Troubadours’ second album, “Diamonds & Gasoline.” Here’s the song that about ran me off the road:
Last May, I dragged my old roommate to see them at a wine festival here in town, where a stupidly small crowd in a field in about 400-degree weather was nonetheless appreciative. Thank god the sun eventually went down.
“Ridiculously good” is the phrase that came to my mind. Of course, I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, but I do believe these guys should be really, really famous, if there is any justice in the music world. Which there is not. But since they won Best New Group at the Texas Regional Radio Awards last year, are all over the Texas radio charts and headlined the hell out of an off-SXSW show last Wednesday, things might be going to turn out all right.
The showcase was put on by the KVET “Roadhouse” folks, and the firepower was impressive. I don’t know squat about the Red Dirt scene, and also I am personally older than dirt, but I’ve just barely managed to hear about this guy named Cody Canada; Gary P. Nunn was there, and I adore Bob Schneider though I don’t know what he was doing on that bill. But most of the fans we talked with were there specifically to see the Troubadours, and they showed up early and stayed till 1 am to do it. They were not disappointed.
Everybody always writes about the frontman or frontwoman, and sure, I will too, but that’s definitely not all there is to this band, so first here’s one favoring Ryan Engleman (lead guitar) and Kyle Nix (fiddle and backing vocals) — “Easton and Main”:
“Leaving and Lonely,” which probably is a two-step floor-filler, was written by RC Edwards (bass and backing vocals):
Drummers always take it on the chin, don’t they? I apologize for not finding a clip where Gabe Pearson (drums and backing vocals) was suitably featured. I’ll keep looking.
Those clips give a peek at some of the music styles they can switch through or wave at: bluegrass, honky-tonk, folk, bottle-slide blues, Cajun, rock. You can certainly dance your fanny off at the shows, and plenty do, but you can also just stop and appreciate what you’re listening to. It well repays the concentration.
“Long Hot Summer Day” has been a big radio hit for them; it isn’t so much a cover as it is a complete recarving and polishing of a (little-known?) 1989 folk song. The very funny and photographic lyrics did at first make me think it was one they wrote; who the hell sings about chicken consommé? It absolutely kills live, and they can rave it up, as they did for the opening number at the KVET showcase, or stretch out and feature the harmony singing, as they did at the much quieter wine festival show. Good to know your crowd (which they are certainly road-tempered enough to do, unfazed by bar fights and such).
Harmony features prominently in another great cover, “Fox on the Run,” which is now a bluegrass standard but, the Internet tells us, began life as a fairly putrid British rock attempt (sorry, Manfred. Loved “Do Wah Diddy” though) that was utterly redeemed by Bill Emerson and even wound up on a Tom T. Hall album, which is where I first heard it when I was rolling around on the floor playing with blocks and trains and ducks and stuff.
They sure will rip through the Old 97’s “Doreen,” too. Other people’s songs, though, are not the story here. And in this case, it turns out, the front guy does write most of the words; that’s Evan Felker. Best way to appreciate what’s going on here is just to quote some big old chunks of it, so here you go. A bit of “The Funeral,” which isn’t quite as downbeat as this sounds and has this great line in the chorus — “Nothing like a family to make you feel so damned alone”:
Well they pulled out into traffic and nosed in behind the hearse
And that awful empty feeling, well it went from bad to worse
The preacher read from Scripture and they put him in the ground
Everybody loaded up and headed back to town
But Jimmy got his whiskey out once everyone was gone
Felt he should say something staring down at the stone
The menfolk folded tables and the ladies cleaned the plates
The cousins asked about the car locked behind the gates
Jimmy knew his daddy’s .38 was in that trunk buried deep
And it’d find its rightful owner once his mama was asleep
Jimmy looked at Mama, and Mama just looked down
She said “Why’s it take a funeral, boy, to bring you back to town?”
OK that was heavy. Good, but heavy. Let’s bring the house lights back up. “Shreveport”:
On a Greyhound bound for Shreveport I’d been too long in my seat
I stopped off in a no-name town to grab a bite to eat
The ceiling fans they hummed above a screened-in patio
Crawfish hotter than a chimney fire, the beer was cheap and cold
And the barmaid smiled that kind of smile that knocked me off my stool
She said “Hang around, I’ll show you things they don’t teach in school”
Go listen — it’s all like that, just picture after picture and a growling jake brake. “Crayfish hotter than a chimney fire” — Did you know a chimney fire really is hotter than other house fires? I didn’t; I had to go look it up.
On “Whole Damn Town” (audio’s back up at the top where I ran off the road), at least for me, it’s not just the lyrics but the way the music and the whole attack of the song catch one very specific emotion. Still, there are a lot of pictures here in very few words. At “The neon signs light up the block / It’s a living, breathing honky-tonk,” I always picture Gruene, though that’s surely not the original antecedent. “The music pours out on the street / Just as clean and cool as a cotton sheet.”
Do I detect a slight aversion to choruses? (Screw rules anyway.) Here’s a good one, though, in “7 & 7”:
He’s not just strumming up there either. (And it looked like he burned through a couple sets of strings Wednesday!) Here’s Felker in Dylan mode 😉 On voice: If your heart doesn’t jump into your throat when he launches into “Good lord Lorrie, I love you / Could it go more wrong,” at the 2:54 mark, well, to quote our governor, I don’t think you have a heart. Or maybe it’s just me… Nah. But god do I know that feeling.
So when these guys take famous in the full-fledged national sense, you already know some things about them. Impress people with the knowledge that their name comes from the Indian Nation Turnpike. Also, try to say Tahlequah right. (You have to love folks who’re this proud of their hometowns.) Because I am an ethical newspaper person, I am not going to tell you to go buy their upcoming album, “Goodbye Normal Street,” but I am going to tell you it comes out May 8. Brush up on your dancing.