Interview: Turnpike Troubadours’ Evan Felker Talks New Album, Telling Stories and Defining Success
If you're a country music fan who loves a good story and you're not listening to the Turnpike Troubadours, you're doing it wrong. For a decade, frontman Evan Felker has honed his songwriting skills, and on the band's fourth album, A Long Way From Your Heart, released on Friday (Oct. 20), he and his bandmades weave especially worthy narratives, both with words and music.
"We're telling stories, and anything that we can do to give that a bit of a landscape in the listener's mind, or give it action, I think that supports the story," Felker tells The Boot, referring specifically to the musical flourishes he, his bandmades and their producer, Ryan Hewitt, put into their songs. They're small things -- a drum fill that sounds like hail hitting a tin roof -- but they elevate each tune's tale.
"We're trying to be descriptive with every aspect of the song," Felker adds, "or support the story in some manner."
Turnpike Troubadours -- Felker, fiddle player Kyle Nix, steel and electric guitarist Ryan Engleman, bass player RC Edwards, drummer Gabe Pearson, and steel and accordion player Hank Early -- completed A Long Way From Your Heart three or four months ago, after heading into the studio in the spring. They're proud of the finished product ("I know it's as good as we could possible do it at this time," Felker says), so waiting to get it into fans' hands has been "a bit nerve-wracking."
"It's just been a lot of anticipation," Felker admits, "but I'm excited as hell."
Longtime Turnpike Troubadours fans will recognize the characters on A Long Way From Your Heart, both from past albums and Felker's own life -- fitting, then, that Felker notes that producer Hewitt's process involves looking back at bands' past works and live shows and "trying to make you sound like the best possible version of what your band sounds like."
"It's hard to turn over the reins ... It's been our baby for 10 years, you know? We've made a lot of critical choices about how we sound over the years," Felker admits. Hewitt, however, has "an exceptional ear and really knows how to streamline a song and make it the most musical and compact it can be, and he gets great performances out of people."
Turnpike Troubadours are major players in the Texas and Oklahoma country scenes, though they've garnered more and more national attention with their two previous albums: 2012's Goodbye Normal Street went to No. 14 on the country charts, while 2015's The Turnpike Troubadours hit No. 3. They're successful enough in their native region to make a living, but Felker isn't one to look at the band's success as only a monetary thing.
"We always wanted to play everywhere," he says. "It's easy to kind of get trapped in a rut if you're thinking about success in terms of dollar bills."
And Felker never wants to see himself and his bandmates in that rut.
"If you're asking yourself timidly, 'Hey, guys, we're comfortable here ...,' then you're screwing up ... I just try not to ever think that way," he continues. "A lot of it's just our personalities as a band -- It's hard for me to be satisfied. I always want to do more and do better and write better and make better records and play bigger venues."
That said, Felker acknowledges that he feels a bit "in uncharted territory": The Turnpike Troubadours have accomplished their goals "pretty handily." So these days, he's looking for small things to improve upon: tweaking the live show, expanding their style -- "anything you can think of to sort of improve upon what you already have."
"It's not about success goals," Felker explains. "It's about musical and performance and songwriting goals. That's the next step, for me."
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