Yeah, I realize it’s not exactly like the Beatles got back together. Or even Simon & Garfunkel’s reunion in Central Park. And I understand that many regular followers of modern music – frequent readers of this site, for instance – have probably never heard of this band. But I’m here to tell you this: if you like country music – and in that I’m talking about outlaw country, alt-country, red dirt country, alright there’s really no other way around it…good country music – then you know that the reformation of the Turnpike Troubadours is a seriously big deal. A few years back, no finer authority on the world of independent country music than the essential Saving Country Music summed it up thusly: “If someone says they don’t like country music, hand them a Turnpike Troubadours album. If someone says they only like mainstream country, hand them a Turnpike Troubadours album. If someone doesn’t know the Turnpike Troubadours, hand them a Turnpike Troubadours album.”
They were at the top of the game. Having risen from beer-soaked barrooms of Tulsa, Oklahoma and self-releasing their debut album in 2007, they’d become the pride of legitimate country music, stuff that Waylon and Willie would endorse not the manufactured pop country schmaltz of the phony rhinestone cowboys dominating Nashville (for those noting the character-less, pre-programmed rubbish from reactionary clown Jason Aldean in the news this past week, for instance, well, think of something like the opposite of that).
And then it all went away. Lead singer and principal songwriter Evan Felker’s ongoing battle with alcohol had provoked dysfunction and ultimately outright disrepair, and in May of 2019 the band announced that they would be taking an indefinite hiatus, not to perform again “until a time we feel that everyone is of strong mind, body and spirit,” an especially ominous tone given the overt uncertainty of Felker’s condition and commitment. 30 months went by with little to any further public messaging, while both industry followers and devout fans had to face the increasingly realistic possibility that they’d seen the last of the Turnpike Troubadours.
Until November 24th, 2022, when the band’s website was unceremoniously updated with a graphic simply stating “Coming Soon.” Felker had gotten sober, a messy management situation had been untangled, and the six stars of the band had realigned at last. Days later Saving Country Music led its story with “Christmas is coming early for fans of the startlingly talented band from Oklahoma, the Turnpike Troubadours” before closing it with a heartfelt passage. “Don’t ever take the moments you share with your favorite bands for granted, because you never know when they could get scuttled and go away forever. That is the lesson of the last 2 1/2 years from the Turnpike Troubadours. And thankfully, that painful and protracted lesson is finally over.” Four-plus agonizing months hence, April 9th, 2022 to be exact, these modest, homespun boys from Tahlequah, Oklahoma played their first reunited show, a performance effusively reviewed in Saving Country Music that included the sentence, “With no effort at embellishment, what happened in Tulsa will go down in history—for the historical venue of Cain’s Ballroom, for the Turnpike Troubadours, for independent country music, and for country music in general. It was that paramount, and that profound.”
I’d seen the band once before, a 2017 show at Brooklyn Bowl where I took completely uninitiated friends – Duck, Kap, Cek and Zuck – and left with four new fans. None of us, of course, could then have foreseen that the Troubadours would soon disappear, and then years later dramatically, even heroically, reappear. All of which would still make it a bit of an understatement to say that I’d undergone an insane amount of anticipation and harbored some crazy expectations when I finally had the chance to see the Turnpike Troubadours for the first time in their second phase: this week at NYC’s Beacon Theater.
And, well,…they almost lived up to it. But the shortcomings were, to me, pinned entirely to the sound quality; in a venue in which I’ve seen scores of concerts and know to have extremely high-end sonic capabilities, the mix was puzzlingly muddy, swallowing fiddle and guitar solos and even vocal intelligibility in a cacophonous blur seemingly prepared for the Stones in a stadium rather than the Troubadours in a theater (I’ve searched the world wide web for possible explanations of the booming production and deficient balance, but as yet have found no clarity about, um, the unfortunate lack of clarity).
Nonetheless, the experience of the show was barely diminished. There was thrumming energy from both the audience and the stage, where guitarist Ryan Engleman provided the essential Turnpike Troubadours sound, distinctly country but critically with some jagged edges – twang coupled with a rock and roll snarl – that makes them unique, while Kyle Nix added his manic movements and moments on the fiddle. The setlist was rock-solid, filled with established singalong favorites but with some brand new material mixed in from their forthcoming album Cat in the Rain (that’s right, a new Troubadours record is happening, their first since 2017, with a release date set of August 25th). Plus, just the significance of the moment: seeing this marvel of a band, the Troubadours 2.0, still brawny, intelligent, and distinctively independent. Their renewed vigor was surely conspicuous evidence of a group in which everyone is thankfully once again “of strong mind, body and spirit.”
(with the cloudy mess of sound emanating out of the Beacon, we’ll eschew the live video capture and instead feature this one, ‘Mean Old Sun,’ the powerfully evocative first track released from the upcoming new album)