Red Dirt Country Boys Turnpike Troubadours Are Here to Soundtrack Your Simple Drinks
We talked to vocalist Evan Felker about being normal on the cusp of the release of their new LP, which you can stream exclusively now on Noisey.
Evan Felker is a country boy in a band of country boys—for country boys. To talk to him, you’d never guess that his band Turnpike Troubadours (OK they’re not his band; they’re the band he sings in) is one of the most successful country bands you’ve never heard of. You’d think he’d just got home from a day of work, ready to take on the night in true country boy style.
The Troubadours are what you call "red dirt" country—a genre given to artists who come from Oklahoma and even occasionally Texas. Willie Nelson is one of them; Eli Young Band is another. Even Miranda Lambert has some Red Dirt roots. Turnpike Troubadours come from a long line of rebellious country music and you can hear that in their songs.
The Evan Felker that you knew in 2012—when the Troubadours’ third album Goodbye Normal Street released—is not the same Evan Felker you hear on Turnpike Troubadours, the group's latest record which Noisey is premiering and streaming in full below before its release on September 18. He, as well as the band, have grown up. They’re no longer so staunchly anti-Nashville and anti-Mainstream as they once were. Are they as charming? As rowdy? As full of life? Of course. But where Goodbye Normal Street departed from the mainstream, Turnpike Troubadours returns, more mature with a few lessons learned, but still ready to raise some hell.
Noisey: First of all, congratulations on this new album. It sounds like it’s going to be a good one.
Evan Felker: Yeah, I think it’s going to be good. I like it. How many people in the world don’t like their records when they’re done with them? More than you think. I’m proud of it.
What made you guys decide to start recording in northern California instead of Oklahoma?
Oklahomans go to California over and over again. I don’t know why. I don’t know why we went there. I mean, more or less, because there are connections between California and Oklahoma. One of the guys that we knew had done an internship out there, and said it was really nice and had good gear. Another reason to do a location recording for us was, honestly, just to try it out and sort of remove all distractions. We had to nickel and dime it on all the other records between touring. I think you come out with a different kind of product if you do it that way.
What part of northern California were you guys in?
We were in Cotati, California, just north of San Francisco about 90 miles. There are a ton of small towns just bunched together, it seems like. It was in Sonoma County. It was pretty cool. We had a long-standing joke that we were going to call the record Wine Country and really alienate all our fans.
Maybe wine country needs a little country-ing up. I don’t know.
I love it up there. Man, it’s gorgeous. The place was a converted chicken farm, and had really great gear and professional people. The weather was perfect every day. I could go back. It’s about 100 degrees right now [in Oklahoma].
I know you guys took some time off to record, which it’s why it’s been three years and I know you guys do a lot of writing straight from the heart. How autobiographical is this album? Are we going to get more songs that are really personal? Or have you moved away from that?
Maybe it’s just getting a little older, but I don’t really like writing exposés and throwing people under the bus. The songs are based on real things that have happened to me—real scenarios that have either happened to me, or something that I’ve related to that someone else has done or been through—and to a large degree they are autobiographical with a series of “what ifs,” and maybe set in different areas than it really was. So it’s fiction, but it’s rooted very deeply in my own life.
What do you mean a collection of “what ifs?”
Like what if things had gone different in a certain situation with a certain person. If you look at your life as a base skeleton of a script for a movie and you realize that it’s not that interesting then you start saying, “Well, what if this had happened?” and then you can build something that’s a little bit more interesting than real life, because real life’s not always that interesting. Mine isn’t.
Does that happen? Have you taken a look back on life and thought maybe it wasn’t as interesting as you thought you wanted it to be so you recreated that in your songs?
It’s not that. I’m happy with how interesting I am. It’s not that in any way. I’m only talking about scenarios and settings, and one character reacting one way when in reality they would’ve reacted another way. Yeah, we’re getting off into short story land. Sorry. Middle school literature is what we’ve got going here.
I know in the past you’ve been staunchly against the country that’s coming out of Nashville. Is that still the case?
No, I don’t care about what anybody else does. I just want to try to do some decent work and I like it when other people do that. But I’m not into changing the world or anything. I just want to make nice records. There’s a whole lot of talking that goes on about how much... I don’t know, when I talk about how I don’t like music that’s coming out of Nashville—mainstream country—it’s just to make myself feel big and I don’t think that that’s cool, so I just don’t talk about it, because it’s not going to help me be a better songwriter, bitching about somebody, you know.
Is that a lesson that you’ve learned over the past few years?
I’ve been guilty of that kind of “Screw the establishment” kind of talk.
I think everyone is at some point.
Yeah, I think it’s probably a pretty human thing to do. You’ve know, I’ve heard so much of it and it’s a tired argument. I’d rather just write songs. I like what I like, and in this day and age now it even seems like less of an argument because you have access to all the music that’s ever been recorded on your phone or anytime you want, so do you really need to bitch about a couple of guys making some money? I don’t think so.
At the end of the day, you’re all out trying to do the same thing.
Yeah, and I don’t have to listen to this. That was my whole point on things like Spotify and iTunes and all that. You don’t have to listen to it. You can listen to anything you want to, so why bitch about somebody’s music? I don’t know, maybe we’re getting off topic.
Not at all. I have noticed in your lyricism and writing you do have this very authentic—I know people like to call you “red dirt country” and compare you to bands like Alabama and Texas bands that are very authentic—and I wondered if you agreed with that.
I take that as high praise and I feel like I am to some degree authentic. It’s easy to be a very fake person, especially in the entertainment business. I feel like everybody in this band is pretty much “what you see is what you get.” They’re not putting on an act. They might show off once in awhile, you know, but that’s just what people do. I think there are a lot of bands that are that way, especially in our part of the world. Like you said, authentic people that know about what they’re writing about and don’t present themselves one way. Just because they’re wearing a country hat doesn’t mean that they’re country.
What were some of the stand out moments on this album for you?
We wrote “The Mercury,” I wrote it sitting down on the couch, and then went and did a demo of it more or less. That night after I got done recording, Johnny [Fullbright] got into town and, he and I, we don’t see each other that much and can have a tendency to overdo it and have a little bit too much fun. So the next morning the session started and I didn’t even think about getting out of bed until noon that next day, or one or two, something silly. So I got in there and the song was almost finished. We’d never played it before, and the band had played it as if I’d have been there and we’d have been going through it together, you know. It was the same sort of vibe.
We’ve been doing this so long together now that we sort of think—can sort of see—the same things, and have the same problem solving skills, and that—trusting somebody with your work and not directing them in any way and it coming out as well as it would have if you had been a slave driver the whole time and bitching at everybody—that’s a big moment for me. It’s even a turning point for the band. It builds so much trust. Nobody’s going to screw you over. That was a nice thing. And I got to write with Rhett Miller from the Old ‘97s and that was nice.
Is he one of your heroes?
Yeah, I got to...just really trying yourself and realizing what you are and what you aren’t. We worked 12 hours a day. Somebody was in the studio for 30 days, and it’s a level of...certain kinds of dedication that, you know. People probably think it’s easier than it is. We produced it ourselves, and Ryan did the production, our guitar player. We all kind of planned on there not really being a producer when we got there and Ryan [Engleman] took the wheel. He’s really good at it. So we just kind of stepped back and let him run the show. It was cool. It was something we did ourselves. We might as well have done it myself in Okemah. Except the weather was prettier.
That’s for sure. You talked a little bit about going out and getting a little wild. What’s your go-to drink at a bar?
I drink beer. I like Corona or Modelo in a can, when I can get it. That’s what I’m drinking right now. We drink whiskey, too. A lot of times Wild Turkey. We used to drink Jim Beam, but we got kind of burned out on it. I like Jameson, too. I don’t know. I like a gin and tonic. Well, gin’s pretty good.
Simple guy, simple drinks.
Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not a...I don’t have any kind of fancy tastes, really. I get kind of silly about going out, especially on the west coast, and eating seafood and eating oysters and clams and stuff like that. Every time I get out there. I don’t mind shelling out some money on those good oysters you get out there. It’s really fun.
Well, you know as they say, “When in Rome.” I think that goes along too with…you guys are very authentic and very relatable, as an audience would see in you guys. You’re just like us.
Yeah, well I live in a little house in Okemah. I just tried to stay close to where...I don’t know, if you’re around people that know you and knew you growing up, you really can’t bullshit anybody, and it comes through in your work. I think it does. I like to think it does anyway.
Annalise Domenighini also likes a simple drink. Follow her on Twitter.