Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours release their fifth studio album, A Long Way From Your Heart, this Friday, Oct. 20. Like William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Turnpike has Eastern Oklahoma. The backdrop plays as vital a piece to their storytelling as any of the numerous composite characters they’ve created to inhabit their timeless world. A Long Way is a maturation in their already strong sense of storytelling.
Resilience in the face of adversity shines throughout. Characters are often adjusting to responsibility. They consider falling back into their old habits but continue to persevere regardless the setbacks and tragedies. It’s about growing up despite the challenges.
With a world as rich as Turnpike’s, this is a Listener’s Guide to A Long Way From Your Heart and how these 11 songs relate to previous songs, albums and Turnpike’s version of Oklahoma.
1. “The Housefire”
- The opening track revisits one of the Turnpike canon’s favorite characters, Lorrie. Here, she’s grown up some and is now a mother and presumably a wife to the narrator. Previously, she’s been the subject of “Good Lord Lorrie” and “The Mercury.” Lorrie’s hometown is De Queen, Ark. in Sevier County. Though born in Okemah, Okla, Evan Felker grew up in Wright City, Okla., which is about an hour west.
- The narrator of “The Housefire” is also the narrator of “The Bird Hunters.” During “The Bird Hunters,” the narrator has moved home back to Cherokee County. Cherokee County’s county seat is Tahlequah, Okla., which was the band’s home base for much of their career. The previous album Goodbye Normal Street is named after the street, Normal Street, where R.C. Edwards and others lived on for a period of time. The main clue to the narrator of “The Housefire” and “The Bird Hunters” being the same character is both having a close connection to a Browning Auto-5 shotgun. Both also have references to old logging roads.
2. “Something To Hold On To”
- “Something To Hold On To” was co-written with Kevin Russell, the lead vocalist and bandleader of Shinyribs and formally of The Gourds. This is Felker and Russell’s first co-write. Shinyribs has played with Turnpike numerous times in recent memory.
- One of Felker’s go-to devices is putting characters in doorways. This typically infers that the character is leaving and at odds or at the very least, at odds with the narrator. In “Good Lord Lorrie,” Lorrie’s “words cut clean through drunk and dark and dimming doorway light.” In “Old Time Feeling (Like Before),” the narrator tells his love interest that he knows “you’re gonna darken up my door.” In “Empty As a Drum,” the narrator remarks that “when you darkened up the doorway, I stood up from the bar.” Here on “Something To Hold On To,” the narrator opens the song with “you come smiling through the doorway like an old regret.”
3. “Winding Stair Mountain Blues”
- The Winding Stair Mountains are in Southeastern Oklahoma and Southwestern Arkansas. They’re part of the Ozarks and lay just north of McCurtain County (Wright City, Okla.) and Sevier County (De Queen, Ark.) and northeast of Bryan County, which is mentioned throughout.
- The old sawmills of the area are once again mentioned. They’re tied to the logging roads mentioned previously, but when the narrator mentions “in between the mill and whatever deer I kill, truth be told, I barely make a living,” it relates back to “Southeastern Son” where the narrator signs up for the National Guard since “the sawmill ain’t hiring.” “Southeastern Son” is also based off some of Felker’s cousins who were serving their country. Again, Wright City was essentially established as a “company town” in the early 1900s for a lumber company. It was also once home to a Weyhauser plant, which closed in 2009, affecting 165 employees.
- “Unrung” is full of idioms. “I just bite my tongue,” “last note fades away,” and “that bell can’t be unrung” are prime examples. Felker has long been a fan of idioms and expressions. Coming up with new idioms has also been sort of an unofficial family game for Felker.
- The narrator is trying to warn his friend who has fallen for a younger, less mature woman. It’s similar to Lori McKenna’s “Old Men, Young Women.” Here, the narrator is holding back on telling his friend, even though he can see the all the signs.
5. “A Tornado Warning”
- This is Turnpike’s best example of where the music follows the story Felker’s telling. As the storm gets louder, the music does as well. When country music is coming from the kitchen, the band goes into a real old school country piece. Felker starts yelling as if actually having to yell over the hailstorm.
- Lines like “kerosene feeds the flame, your effect is quite the same” and “shadows dancing on the wall” tell the story of the falling in love while there’s a storm surrounding them. It’s quite the opposite of “Wrecked,” where the slightest wind destroyed their “home of bedsheets and styrofoam.” Tornadoes are also how the narrator describes him and his love interest in “Ringing in the New Year” to show how unpredictable and how much damage they caused during their relationship. Here though, the narrator and his love are stronger than the storm. They’ve persevered the hard weather and rough times.
6. “Pay No Rent”
- Felker and John Fullbright wrote “Pay No Rent” for Felker’s Aunt Lou, who passed away from cancer last year. She owned the Rocky Road Tavern in Okemah, which was one of the first bars Felker, Edwards and the early beginnings of Turnpike played. She had asked Felker to play Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” at her funeral. Felker and Fullbright soon realized that Lou had asked about five other folks to play the Nelson standard as well. The night before her funeral, Felker and Fullbright wrote the beautiful tribute.
- As mentioned, Fullbright, a former Troubadour himself, co-wrote “Pay No Rent” with Felker. Fullbright has also co-written “Every Girl,” “Evangeline,” and “Time of Day” with Felker. He has also played piano and accordion on previous songs such as “Morgan Street,” “7 Oaks,” and “Sunday Morning Paper.”
- Dominoes are another go-to device for Felker to help relay a long time relationship and familiarity with other characters. Felker’s mentioning of the dominoes is a way to say he’s able to rely on Aunt Lou. “Good Lord Lorrie” and “7&7” are other songs that mention dominoes. On “Good Lord Lorrie,” the dominoes are being played between Broken Bow and De Queen in the small town of Eagletown. This is where the fight breaks out between the narrator and Lorrie.
7. “The Hard Way”
- Highway 10 runs through Tahlequah. The Diamondhead Resort is just north of town on Highway 10. This is where the Illinois River is and where Turnpike and Jason Boland & The Stragglers have their annual Medicine Stone Music Festival. John Hartford‘s “Long Hot Summer Day,” a long time staple for the band, is about working on the Illinois River.
- The narrator is longing to relive his youth on “The Hard Way.” Despite it being a too late, the narrator is nostalgic for his late 20s. The line “27 warmed over” is a play on the idiom “like death warmed over.” Still, he’s determined to relive his experiences since he’s on a run of good luck (“rolling in the clover). 27 is also the age in which Felker is in “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead.” On there, he says “Well, I’m 27 years old now, I was born in ’84. And I’ve as free as I can be and I won’t as of anymore. So let the fiddle play a hoedown after I’ve drawn my last breath. Well, tell everyone I know them that I loved them all to death.” In many ways, he’s wanting to get back to that mindset.
8. “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)”
- This was co-written with Edwards and Jonny Burke. Burke has co-written the Turnpike songs “Long Drive Home,” “Down Here” and “Pipe Bomb Dream.” He also included his version of “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)” on his latest album, Along Alone Alright.
- Like “Something To Hold On To,” the narrator is looking for one more chance from his love interest. While “Something to Hold On To” has a rolling, almost James Brown begging aspect,” “Old Time Feeling (Like Before) is more of a sweet, sad cry for forgiveness and for one more last chance.
- Bonus: “Down Here” is narrated by Danny from “The Bird Hunters.” To fully understand “Down Here,” think of Danny essentially saying everything from the song to the narrator of “The Bird Hunters” and “The Housefire” while the events of “The Bird Hunters” is actually taking place.
9. “Pipe Bomb Dream”
- Like “Blue Star” and “Southeastern Son,” “Pipe Bomb Dream” is about a military veteran. Main nods are “did a little something for the brat end free, now you’re gonna make a law against a boy like me.”
The narrator of “Pipe Bomb Dream” is back home after serving his country and making several trips to Colorado to buy marijuana. The law finally catches up with him, hence his resentment towards the current marijuana laws in Oklahoma and the country at large.
- Bassist R.C. Edwards had the idea to combine the phrases “pipe dream” and “pipe bomb” to create the scene. The narrator knows the risks. He knows it’s just a matter of time before he gets caught. In the end, he knows it’s a flawed dream to continuously avoid the law.
10. “Oklahoma Stars”
- Jamie Lin Wilson co-wrote “Oklahoma Stars” with Felker. She and Felker co-wrote the duet “Call A Spade a Spade” and The Trishas song “Little Sweet Cigars.” Additionally, Wilson’s husband Roy was cast in the music video for “Gin Smoke Lies.”
Felker further dives into trying to decide the on the difference between love and lust. Typically, he chalks broken hearts and young love to being played a fool. On here, the narrator talks about how “it’d take a fool to say it” and how fools need supervision. Fools come up in “Down on Washington,” “Gone Gone Gone,” “Ringing in the Year,” “7&7” and “A Little Song” as well.
- The title “Oklahoma Stars” seems to be an homage to Oklahoma’s native son, Woody Guthrie and his song with Wilco & Billy Bragg, “California Stars.” While Felker was raised in Wright City, he was born in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah. In addition, “California Stars” is actually in reference to a quilt pattern. Had this been a song about a quilt pattern named after Oklahoma, it’d have probably been called “Road to Oklahoma Block,” which doesn’t really roll off the tongue as nicely.
11. “Sunday Morning Paper”
- Ervin Felker is Evan Felker’s uncle. He gave him his first guitar and is himself a musician. Erv had written the first line, “Sunday morning paper said ‘rock and roll is surely dead,’” years ago. Evan always liked the line and thought he’d write a song based off it as well. Erv Felker is also the main character of “Blue Star.”
- “Sunday Morning Paper” is primarily about the influential voices of ‘70s country and rock & roll. The likes of Leon Russell and Merle Haggard have been major influences on Turnpike’s overall aesthetics in sound and storytelling. Leon Russell is referenced with the lines “screaming out for everything you’re worth,” “dressed like the greatest show on earth,” “banging on a baby grand” and Tulsa Town. Haggard is referenced with the lines “your slick back hair and your prison blues,” “Mother tried to keep you from that road” and The Bakersfield Sound. Guitarist Ryan Engleman plays a sharp and rolling lick like Haggard’s iconic ‘70s sound while Fullbright plays a Russell-esque honky-tonk piano.