At first glance, the newborn calf held its own. A few days old, nestled under a tarp in the cowboy’s shop, it lifted its head and surveyed the room when the cowboy walked in for a wellness check. The calf was sick. It had not attempted to nurse its mother even once. Fact is, cowboys — at least ones in East-Central Oklahoma — cannot fathom the notion of losing a calf.
“This little shit’s been trying to die since he hit the ground,” Evan Felker says, rinsing out the bottle he’s been using to feed the animal.
His mind is, unshakably, on the calf. Sixty-five miles to the northeast lies the Bank of Oklahoma Center in downtown Tulsa, where — one night later — Felker will lead the Turnpike Troubadours on stage for the first of two arena concerts in three days. Five feet to his left is me. He knows I’ve been chasing this profile since the Troubadours first announced their return from a three-year hiatus in late 2021. We’re in the basement of the home he bought half a year earlier within a short drive of Okemah, his birthplace and occasional setting for his lyrics. Felker recognizes the gravity of the concerts, and he had personally signed off on an interview in his own home. In the moment, though, it all may as well have been half a planet away.
We have a ton to cover. Turnpike is releasing its first album in six years on August 25, the 10-song A Cat in the Rain — produced by Shooter Jennings. In the context of the band’s journey (and Felker finding sobriety) since its near-breakup in 2019 and the frenzy surrounding its comeback, A Cat in the Rain stands as one of the most anticipated records the Americana genre has ever known. This week, Turnpike will drop the first single and accompanying video, “Mean Old Sun,” which the band previewed live at Stagecoach Festival last weekend. (There are also new tour dates to come.)
During the interview, Felker’s wife, Staci, watches their two children upstairs. Evangelina Hartford (Evie) turned 2 in January, and Everett Augustus was born last September. He may be distracted, and he may convey his discomfort with this sort of personal inquisition by sliding into a chair across from me the way someone might do if the floor were covered with snakes, but — in between wary glances up at the basement door — Felker powers through. That is, after all, what cowboys do.
“If you change the way that you perceive the world, and address it with humility and gratitude, you’d be surprised,” Felker tells Rolling Stone. “When you become a different person, it only takes people realizing it. The more that you’re just around, and the more that you are you, and people see this is how you live your life, a lot of your old problems go away.”
Felker is candid and introspective, and when he sees we’re here to paint a detailed picture of both him and his band, he stops sizing me up. He even invites me on a tour of his acreage.
Outside, he has a sprawling plot of land that he and a partner are turning into a full-fledged cattle operation. His days, he says, begin before the sun rises. Fans wondering how it took the band more than a year since returning to the road to release a new record should look no further than this ranch-in-progress.
“A lot of the time now, music is kind of an on-and-off switch,” Felker says. “I come here and I work on all this stuff, and then we go out and play. I try to write a little bit while I’m out there, but it’s tricky to get things caught up enough to where I can write and work on music — unless you give me a deadline. It’s always been hard for me if that’s not the only thing I do.”
All of this would fit neatly into the concept of a fairy-tale ending for both the Felkers and for Turnpike were it not for the nagging problem of how close it all came to unraveling.
In February, Turnpike played a sold-out show at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Avett Brothers and the Wood Brothers opened. The Avetts — forces of nature themselves — played such an energetic middle set that it could have passed as the main event, at least until the Troubadours walked out.
“We’re so happy to be here, ladies and gentlemen!” Felker addressed the crowd. “There was a time, not too long ago, that we weren’t sure we’d ever get to do this again.”
TURNPIKE TROUBADOURS ARE FELKER, R.C. Edwards (bass), Ryan Engleman (lead guitar), Kyle Nix (fiddle), Gabe Pearson (drums), and Hank Early (steel and accordion), and the six-piece have spent the past year headlining festivals, amphitheaters, and arenas. Demand for tickets, while perhaps not Taylor Swift level, often jams ticketing websites. For band, fans, and media alike, it has been cast as a comeback tour.
What the narrative has gotten wrong, dating back to 2018 and throughout the hiatus and return, is what the band was coming back from at all.
“I was done with music,” Felker says without blinking.
The story as it has been told — that Turnpike took a break so that Felker could get sober before getting back on the road — was never true. Felker walked away from the band before a scheduled show in Houston in May 2019 never intending to play another note, period. At the time, sobriety was not in the cards.
This was not a comeback from alcoholism. This was a comeback from being so jaded to every aspect of music that Felker never wanted to be around it again.
The actual circumstances — painful as they may have been for the band — were quite tame in the sprawling universe of musical controversies. To rehash them for context: By early 2018, Turnpike was no longer a rising star in Americana. Rather, they were elbowing for a place in the genre’s pantheon alongside artists like Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile.
What had been a bar band for a decade found itself opening mainstream country tours, like that year’s Bandwagon Tour with Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town. A sudden relationship between Felker and Lambert — he and Staci were married at the time — led to Turnpike leaving the tour, the Felkers’ divorce, and an absurd social media firestorm, with fans choosing sides between Lambert and Staci. In its wake, Felker needed an escape. Instead, he found more fans than ever lining up for Turnpike shows, the last thing such an introvert would want at the time. That is when the cancellations happened — Chicago (twice), Shreveport, the Mile 0 Festival in Key West, and the last one in Houston — between September 2018 and May 2019. A concert date would arrive, and Felker would either not make the trip at all or disappear before show time. The band’s internal relationships deteriorated. The bus itself became a toxic place.
Those were the details underlying the hiatus — announced in a grim post on social media in late May 2019. Alcohol, along for the ride during Felker’s career, ended up at the wheel. What followed was a journey that eventually rendered much of his past unrecognizable.
He was raised in Wright City, a village set among the hills and river bottoms of Southeast Oklahoma. He had a decidedly rural upbringing, which fed an interest in hunting. But Felker also grew up with an artist’s contemplative mindset.
“I was always moved by the written word, poetry, songs or whatever,” he says. “My mom read a lot to me, and read pretty voraciously. My uncle played in a band, and I always wanted to play music. I don’t even know when it started, it was that long ago.”
Felker eventually became a front-porch picker. He found Steve Earle’s music. He met and befriended John Fullbright, who was well-rounded musically and as introspective as Felker, and eventually did the same with Nix and Edwards. At the same time, he got turned on to Oklahoma’s Red Dirt scene, with bands like the Great Divide, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and Jason Boland and the Stragglers gaining regional fame. He would move to the scene’s epicenter, Stillwater, long enough to gain his own traction as an artist.
“I had buddies that were going to college that were a couple of years older than me, and we’d hang out on weekends and they had Great Divide CDs,” Felker says. “And I remember having my mind blown. Number one, that this music was even being made, and number two, that young people liked it and it was cool.”
It was with Edwards whom Felker eventually formed the Turnpike Troubadours — named for the toll road that connects Southeast Oklahoma to civilization — in 2007. In 2010, the group released Diamonds and Gasoline. “That record took us from being a garage band to a professional band,” Felker says.
In its formative years, Turnpike forged a reputation as a party band. Trying to out-drink them was rarely a good idea. “If you didn’t drink way too much, you weren’t our kind of people,” Felker says. “That’s a sort of common thing to think in your 20s, but it doesn’t last very long before it causes problems.”
Jamie Lin Wilson — Felker’s friend and occasional co-writer who opened for Turnpike at Lubbock’s United Supermarkets Arena in April — saw the toll that the late nights and alcohol took on Felker, especially as the band’s popularity soared.
“You have this super rise to fame like they did, and they don’t know how to deal with it, especially Evan,” Wilson says. “You do what you think you’re supposed to do, which is party with all your friends, to the detriment of the show and the detriment of your body and your relationships.”
That detriment ultimately manifested as a portrait of a tortured frontman. There was the sight of Felker, mere feet from 2,000 fans in Des Moines in 2018, crouched behind a road case drinking from a bottle of Wild Turkey just before taking the stage. A clip of Felker struggling to perform during a 2019 benefit concert for fiddle player Byron Berline — a mentor to Nix — remains a gut-wrenching watch.
“At some point it works,” Felker says. “You can drink all day or drink too much, and it works for you. Some people may do that for their whole life, and still have some level of functionality. For me, alcohol affected me different. I was less able to, number one, exist without it. And number two, after like four or five drinks, I was smashed.”
But when Felker walked away from Turnpike, he did not walk away from alcohol. Rehab, and reckoning with the toll drinking had taken on him all happened later. The first thing he did was go off the grid. Rumors swirled around both his personal life and the possibility that Turnpike would never play again, but Felker says he was only barely aware of it all.
“I was so fucked up that it wouldn’t have mattered,” he says. “I was drinking from the morning on.”
It was that combination of drinking and solitude that pushed Felker toward clarity.
“Once you’re off the road, then you realize that there is a problem,” he says. “That you can’t quit, and you can’t blame being on the road anymore.
“Being off the road, I got back to some version of reality,” he continues. “I moved down to Southeast Texas with some friends down there. That’s where I realized that I drank too much to do any of the stuff I liked. Some of my friends who, to this day, can drink a lot of beer, I was lapping them. So, then you keep on doing stupid shit, and you keep on feeling terrible about it. It’s a vicious cycle that you cannot do anything about until you get sober.”
Rehab for Felker was straightforward. He kept in touch with his bandmates, in whom he found support and patience.
“He got sober,” Engleman recalls. “He didn’t take any shortcuts. He did 90 days. That was my first inclination that Turnpike might have a future too.”
“I did whatever my sponsor said to do,” Felker says. “I learned that my way of thinking was what got me in this spot in the first place, so I quit doing it. I made amends with all the people that I could who I wronged. I’ve still got a long way to go, because that’s a life-long deal.”
He also reconciled with Staci. Post-rehab, a structure was in place to get on with a life he wanted. In June 2020, barely a year after Turnpike’s break, Evan and Staci re-married.
Now, at least outwardly, Felker effuses positivity and displays wry humor onstage. He also understands that turning to liquor when things go wrong is no longer an option.
“I don’t have a lot of terrible days,” Felker says. “If something bad happens, I meditate, or I try to find inner peace and find ways to solve problems objectively.”
The interview ends, and so does Felker’s discomfort. He’s eager to show off his ranch. He directs me to the shotgun seat in his ATV, tosses on his white hat, and off we go. Only now, he’s talking a mile a minute, articulating a vision for this expanse of land.
“In typical fashion, I bit off more than I could chew,” Felker laments, with the same self-deprecating grin he gets when he sings the “Look at the gray in your hair” line in fan favorite “The Bird Hunters.”
Evan Felker is in his element. He is behind the wheel, and an excited host.
He’s also right: His place needs a ton of work. There are patches of clear pasture, but there are maybe 200 acres of underbrush and thickets in need of clearing, skeletons of cattle pens, and at least a mile’s worth of fencing that needs to be installed or updated.
Still, he’s got roughly a hundred cattle already, and we ride out to check on them. He’s surprised to see a new Brahman calf. When three blue-winged teal fly over his farm ponds — early in the Oklahoma spring to see these ducks — Felker points excitedly. He speaks with appreciation for the cattle ranchers in Southeast Texas who inspired him into this business, some of whom have had family running cattle for more than a century.
“The first thing I’ve found that has been fulfilling in life, other than music, was this,” Felker says.
WHEN FELKER LEFT, THE OTHER FIVE band members had to re-center their own lives. Engleman joined Reckless Kelly for most of 2019. Nix formed a band — the .38s — and released an album in 2020 that featured contributions from all of Turnpike other than Felker. Pearson played drums for Nix and went back to college. Early started producing out of his own home, including Big Country for Edwards’ side project R.C. and the Ambers. All the while, the members stayed close, and kept tabs on Felker.
“The first thing was just hoping Evan’s OK,” Edwards says. “Once you know he’s OK, well, we really needed a break. We’d been at it for 10-plus years.”
The pandemic eased any pressure on Felker to make music, but the isolation got to Wilson, and she found herself in need of an outlet.
“I had this book of songwriting prompts, and you’re supposed to have a partner. I asked [Felker], ‘Would you want to do this with me?’ And he said, ‘OK,’” Wilson says. “So, for maybe a month, we’d send each other our writing prompts, and I’d just look at his, and go, ‘Man. He’s still got it.’”
Felker describes his return to music as organic. He got comfortable enough to record an album, and he knew that meant touring again. He texted the band, letting them know he was personally ready but that they needed boundaries. No drinks onstage. Band, crew, and family only backstage. A limited touring schedule. Then, they signed with a management company — TMWRK, which also manages Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, and Diplo — to work within those boundaries.
During the break, demand for Turnpike soared. Their longtime booking agent, Jon Folk — whose boutique Red 11 Music was bought last month by WME, putting the Troubadours under the umbrella of the representation giant — set out to ensure there would be no leftover grudges from promoters burned by past cancellations. They found an ally in Mammoth Live senior buyer Pat Fielder, who worked with Turnpike from their early days and who personally booked most of their shows in the past year, including all of their arena concerts.
“We could always see that they wear cowboy hats onstage, but that doesn’t make them a country band,” Fielder said. “We embraced that. We wanted to stick with it and build events that were all-encompassing of the musical styles they represent. The only concern was whether the general public was going to feel the way that we did. We got our answer when the first show sold out during presale.”
Fielder’s events have been three-band concerts, often featuring Turnpike’s most frequent opener since returning, the country duo Muscadine Bloodline. Already on a steep trajectory before stepping out in front of Turnpike crowds as high as 18,000 (in summer 2022 at the Azura Amphitheater in Bonner Springs, Kansas), Muscadine — made up of Charlie Muncaster and Gary Stanton — are having their own breakthrough.
Muncaster tells Rolling Stone that the connection Turnpike has with its audience lends its opening bands an opportunity to win over thousands of potential fans.
“It’s obvious to an opener when you can go out and see immediately that their fans are intently listening, and they want to get to know you,” he says. “I guess they look at it like, ‘If Turnpike likes these people, we’re gonna buy in.’ We immediately felt that acceptance.”
Limiting touring to roughly 40 dates a year also meant all of Turnpike’s members could continue with the lives they forged since the hiatus. Nix continued on with the .38s, touring the country in a van. But he also weathered the loss of his friend Berline, who died in 2021. Now when he plays fiddle, it’s a tribute.
“Byron and I had a deal: If he was ever gone, he had this fiddle that was my favorite fiddle in the entire world. He had played it with Bill Monroe,” Nix says, choked up. “These are bluegrass standards that were played on this particular fiddle. And this same one, he played on Gram Parsons recordings. That’s the fiddle I got to play on this new Troubadours album. There’s a lot of new beginnings here, and that’s one of them.”
Edwards, meanwhile, has been leaning hard into performing with RC and the Ambers, on his own, and with musician pals. On an off-day between Turnpike’s two arena shows, he joined Lance Roark for an acoustic set at Tulsa’s Mercury Lounge — a cramped dive that helped launch the Troubadours’ career — to celebrate Roark’s debut EP, Better Man, which was produced by Early and features Edwards as a co-writer. He and Roark met during Turnpike’s hiatus and he says Roark is the next big thing in Americana.
Roark co-wrote “Chipping Mill” from Turnpike’s new album with Edwards and raves about Early producing his record. “Hank is a phenomenal musician,” Roark said. “Very open-minded when it comes to making music and having new ideas, but very good at executing them immediately.”
All of this — the change in perspectives and growth as artists that came directly from the band’s hiatus — provided the backdrop when Turnpike Troubadours walked into FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with producer Jennings in February 2022 to record A Cat in the Rain.
JENNINGS IS HARD TO IMPRESS. As a Grammy-winning producer of some of the most-lauded albums in Americana music in the past decade, he is not actively in search of feathers in his cap. But Jennings talks about A Cat in the Rain — and Felker — with child-like glee.
“He’s like Hemingway-meets-McCartney,” Jennings tells RS. “This wild combination is so rare, but the storytelling on this, and the sadness is so present, even though the music is upbeat. It’s beautiful.”
A Cat in the Rain — started in Muscle Shoals and finished in Los Angeles — is a 10-song snapshot of Turnpike today. Felker wrote six tracks; Early and Roark contributed “Chipping Mill”; and John Fullbright proffered “Three More Days.” There are also two covers, “Black Sky” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and “Won’t You Give Me One More Chance,” recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker.
“I hadn’t seen Evan until Muscle Shoals,” Early says about the first day in the studio. “I remember being a little nervous about seeing everybody again. There was a real desire to be respectful of the journey that Evan had been on.”
That trip marked Felker’s first time playing with a band since 2019, so the first few days became, according to Jennings, “a little bit of rehabilitation in terms of their confidence.”
But the result is a carefully crafted record. “Mean Old Sun” opens with a statement of intent from Felker: “Empty promises I’ve given; a hollow heart beats in my chest.” He’s taking the listener on a journey, but it’s forward-looking rather than a rehash of his last five years.
The song, which “leaked” to Touchtunes jukeboxes in April (previous plans called for releasing the single then instead of now, and Touchtunes missed the revision) commands equal attention for its music. The haunting intro of a banjo and background vocals echoing through a Leslie keyboard amplifier was Jennings’ idea. “Evan liked it,” Jennings says, “and that’s when I went, ‘This is gonna be fun.’”
Felker always frets over his songwriting, sober or otherwise. On A Cat in the Rain, he is more focused and lyrically crisp than at any point in his life. He’s a poet, but he’s direct. Midway through “The Rut,” Felker sings, “I don’t miss the taste of liquor, or really anything about it, but the temporary shelter was a welcome compromise,” with emphasis. The band — eschewing any temptation to show off musically after six years — lets the frontman have his moment.
“It was one of those records that took longer than most,” Jennings said. “But as it was shaping up, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was their Tom Petty Wildflowers. As each song would come together, it was really beautiful.”
Lyrically, there is enough vintage Felker to keep the album in the Turnpike universe. “Lorrie,” a recurring character in their songs, is missing — but a new character is introduced (a review this far in advance does not need to spoil everything). There are references to the Oklahoma landscapes and culture that Felker draws upon. “Your daddy’s gone to Kingston, bettin’ on the rooster fights,” certainly resonates.
The points where Felker strikes the most personal notes are also classic Troubadours. “Brought Me” could easily have been handwritten inside a card to his wife. The chorus leads with “It still beats steady — this heart I handed you for free.” But in Turnpike’s two-four twang, with Early’s steel and Nix’s fiddle providing the foundation, it’s the album’s centerpiece.
“I’d never really played with a clear head in my life,” Felker says. “Getting to do that and having that level of confidence is very fulfilling.”
THE BOK CENTER IS BUILT FOR concerts. The green rooms are spacious and allude to Tulsa’s musical history. Turnpike is in “The Church Studio” room, named for Leon Russell’s old haunt. Just before the band’s debut show at the arena, Felker and Nix are trading jokes, slightly mesmerized by the Troubadours’ commemorative gifts for the show. Local artist Lauren Leigh Henson designed custom throwing axes for each member.
“Hey Kyle,” Felker says, ax in hand. “Why don’t you hold up one of those choppin’ blocks and let me throw this thing at it?”
Nix doubles over. So does the rest of the band. Their no-nonsense tour manager, Warren Cracknell, breaks up the antics with a simple, “Let’s go,” and leads the group to the stage. Felker puts his arm around Cracknell and makes another joke.
With the lights off, the first two minutes of “Electric Worry” by Clutch fill the arena. The band takes the stage in the dark: Pearson first, with Felker, Early, Nix, Engleman and Edwards following. By the time the walkup song hits its “Bang, bang, bang, bang! Vamanos, Vamanos!” crescendo, Turnpike Troubadours are in place. The spotlights pop on, and Felker plays the first chords of the band’s opener, “Every Girl,” on his acoustic guitar. When he starts singing, the entire arena, front row to rafters, joins at full volume.
For Turnpike, the spectacle is still new, if not surreal, but Felker — the cowboy and husband who, in his spare time, stands in the center of it — has snapped back into the zone. He demands a callback during “Gin, Smoke and Lies.” During the second of the Tulsa shows, he brings Old Crow Medicine Show onstage for “Long, Hot Summer Day,” the swampy cover of John Hartford’s river shanty that has long been a Turnpike bucket-list experience.
“Honestly, this is less intimidating than playing a loose set for a thousand-seater,” Felker says of headlining arenas. “Once you get over a certain amount of people, and you know you can’t talk to them anyway, then you’re just playing music the best you can play it. And, really, that should just be what you do anyway to be comfortable. That’s what we want.”
The morning of that show, and a day after our interview, under another of those pristine Oklahoma skies that can make you think mother nature might love you back, Felker sent me a video, from his pasture, of a frolicking calf, head high and tail twitching. It bashed its head under its mother, trying to nurse.
It was the calf from earlier — the one that was under the tarp; the one the distracted cowboy had worried was going to die from the minute it hit the ground. The calf was back, and thriving.
“I thought this was a potential allegory,” read the accompanying text.
Josh Crutchmer is the author of the upcoming book, The Motel Cowboy Show: On the Trail of Mountain Music from Idaho to Texas, and the Side Roads In Between, currently available for pre-order. He chronicled Evan Felker’s journey through sobriety in his 2020 book, Red Dirt.