When Turnpike Troubadours was in its infancy nearly a decade ago, the flashing lights of Cain’s Ballroom were a dream, a goal so far away it seemed silly to think about.
Evan Felker, the band’s singer and one of its primary songwriters, would go there as a high-schooler to see his uncle play rock showcases.
“I said, ‘If I could play that place, I would do that and just retire. That’s good enough for me,’ ” Felker said in a recent interview. “Then over the years, we did. We opened up for (Jason) Boland there and other stuff. First we played the Side Stage, then we opened up for somebody there. Then you do a headline show. Then, fill it out. Then sell it out two nights in a row.”
It’s just one night this time, but the Red Dirt band has sold out the historic venue, a cap in a banner year for the band that saw the release of its highly acclaimed self-titled album with sold-out shows all over the country.
Now is a big time for the band. Its style of raucous country music with thoughtful lyrics and exciting live shows has seen its popularity grow well outside the confines of eastern Oklahoma.
And for those just discovering The Turnpike Troubadours, its latest album is a perfect introduction. It’s a full picture of the band and where it is now. With songs about Tulsa’s Mercury Lounge and Cain’s, as well as a couple of songs from the band’s first EP, “The Turnpike Troubadours” is not a desire to return to the past, a longing for the way things were. It’s an acknowledgement that it happened, a this-is-how-we-got-here album.
“It’s not as though we’re trying to forget the past, we’re just wanting to give good representation of who we are now,” Felker said. “On a national scale, I think that’s a good idea. And those die-hard fans tend to be a little more critical I feel like.”
The album reached No. 3 on the U.S. Country charts and was named among the top albums of the year on several year-end lists. The boys are thrilled, to say the least.
It was a little more than three years between “The Turnpike Troubadours” and their previous album, “Goodbye Normal Street.” Felker said much of that time was spent on the road, working to build the band’s reputation across the country. That didn’t leave much time to write new material, but it paid off in raising its reputation as a rocking Oklahoma country band.
Now, Felkner said, the group finally feels caught up.
The music is so appealing, regardless of where you’re from or your past, because the songs describe shared human experiences, Felker said. They may be told through an eastern Oklahoma lens that we find familiar, but the stories are shared among people everywhere.
“I think it’s universal themes. We all sort of gravitate toward that thing,” Felker said. “We all wanted to go home whether it’s two blocks away or 1,000 miles. We’ve all had relationships not go the way we wanted them to. We’ve all fallen short of our own expectations. It’s just sort of human condition stuff that happens to be set in a certain area.”
Songs like the lead-off track, “The Bird Hunters,” “The Mercury” and “Down Here” tell stories of love and friendship, wild nights out with friends. Many of them are tied together with common characters, he said.
The album also includes “Easton and Main” (which even a casual fan of Cain’s Ballroom will love) and “Bossier City,” both songs from the first album, when the band was young. They became popular road hits and needed to be brought into the new canon of Turnpike.
“In the first month that we were a band, we went in and decided we needed something to sell at the shows. It did us a great service, but it’s not a good representation of who we are now,” Felker said. “There’s not even a fiddle on ‘Bossier City.’ It’s just not us.”
Felker, with one of the band’s other original members, R.C. Edwards, along with members Kyle Nix, Ryan Engelman and Gabe Pearson are now on a roll. And like many in the Red Dirt scene in Oklahoma, these guys have deep connections to many of those in the Stillwater scene in the 1990s. Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jason Boland were going strong by the time Felker moved to Stillwater.
“I got into country music a little later on, into my 20s,” Felker said. “I remember the first time I heard Cross Canadian and Jason Boland and realizing you could sort of play any kind of music you wanted to and be creative in your own way and still get to play gigs. I didn’t know that was a real thing. I’ve said it before, I thought you needed to be Garth Brooks or Kurt Cobain.
“When I moved to Stillwater, those guys were my heroes. They were on top of the world.”
Now he is up there with them. A sold-out night at Cain’s Ballroom on Saturday is the start. On Jan. 1, Felker will get to play with some of those who helped usher him and the rest of the Troubadours into the Red Dirt family.
Felker will be part of the Hangover Ball, which will also feature Cody Canada, former lead singer of Cross Canadian Ragweed and now the leader of the band The Departed, and Boland, who heads The Stragglers. Also performing are William Clark Green, Mike McClure, Jason Eady, Adam Hoot, BJ Barham and Brian Keane.
When Felker and crew take the stage at Easton and Main, the appreciation from fans and the Red Dirt family won’t be lost.
“More than we could ask for,” Felker said.