Everybody loves a good comeback story. Even the ones doing the “coming back.”

“We all like to see things go well for people,” says Evan Felker, frontman and chief songwriter of Turnpike Troubadours. “There’s so much bullshit in the world now, where we’re focused on seeing people failing, that it’s nice to see something positive happen.”

After releasing five genre-defining albums and building a fiercely loyal fanbase, Turnpike Troubadours — the Tahlequah, Oklahoma, kings of Red Dirt music — all but fell apart in 2019, taking a three-year hiatus to find clarity amidst the noise of red-hot career. But after the break, something remarkable and even unprecedented happened: the band returned more popular than ever. Not to mention stronger.

The proof is in the group’s sixth studio album, A Cat in the Rain. Produced by three-time Grammy winner Shooter Jennings (Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You) and recorded at the legendary FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and in Los Angeles, the 10-song album is a tale of reliability, rebirth, and redemption. It’s the story of brothers — Felker, fiddler Kyle Nix, steel player Hank Early, guitarist Ryan Engleman, bassist RC Edwards, drummer Gabe Pearson — six musicians who ran the gauntlet of success, scrutiny, and even personal troubles, and would fight tooth and nail for one another.

“We’ve been through a lot together and it’s only drawn us closer,” says Nix.

“I’m insanely protective of all these people,” Pearson adds. “Just like I would be for my actual brothers.”

Turnpike Troubadours’ fans can feel this. That bond is in the band’s songs and in their live performances — they’ve racked up 1.5 billion streams globally and are selling out arenas and headlining festivals. Still, to some, they remain a mystery…the most popular band they’ve never heard of. But with A Cat in the Rain, that’s all about to change.

This is the first Turnpike Troubadours studio album since 2017’s A Long Way From Your Heart. What did it take to reactivate that muscle when you reunited in the studio? Or did it come naturally?

Evan Felker: I was in a different headspace having gotten sober. I had never written anything sober, so it was a total learning curve. But as far as playing with the guys, it was a breath of fresh air. Some of us hadn’t seen each other in a year or so and to be able to play together, suddenly you’re 22 again. It’s just that natural. But there was work to be done too, like learning how to write songs again. It was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever been a part of.

Hank Early: Honestly, it was a little nerve-wracking because we hadn’t all been in the same room in a long time. There was a lot of questions in my mind, but once we were in the room, it felt as if no time had passed — like you do with friends. It was deeply satisfying when all the anxiety turned out to be for nothing and it all felt so easy and natural.

Kyle Nix: All of a sudden your jokes are landing again, and then old inside jokes start coming out. I was immediately comfortable when we got in there and I felt that way mainly because of the friendships. I knew the music wouldn’t be a problem; we just had to dust off the cobwebs.

Ryan Engleman: It felt pretty natural, but with a little bit of anxiety in the beginning: Is it going to come together?

RC Edwards: A lot of it had that feel again, like when we first started to make a record. That energy was back. There wasn’t any going through the motions. With the time off and missing it all, and learning to not take what you have for granted, it got everyone fired up again.

Gabe Pearson: I sound best when I’m playing with these people. And that has to do with growing as friends. I know how every person in this band is and instead of fighting against that, it’s about just being part of it.

Remarkably, the time away only seemed to energize the fans. What do you think it is about Turnpike that makes your fans so invested in the band?

Hank: I’ve thought about this a lot. I think the process begins with people getting completely hooked on a deeply personal level by Evan’s lyrics. Those lyrics cut to people’s core. There’s something universal about them that’s approachable, real, and raw. I don’t know if he knows his equal these days, in terms of his lyric writing. But it goes another level beyond that, and that’s when they come to the show and experience a sense of community and belonging. There’s this thing that people do, and I’ve never really talked about it, but I look out there and some fans will have this intense look in their eye and they’re pointing right at me as they’re singing the words along with me. Sometimes their hands are up, like we’re in church. It feels so emotionally intense to me.

Kyle: Music stirs people’s memories, nostalgia… “What was I doing when I first heard this song.” I think there’s a lot of that to it. But the fact that we are playing again, people don’t have to look at it nostalgically. They can look at it right in front of them now.

RC: For them to not be able to see us for a few years and yet still be so supportive after all that time, it’s amazing. It’s something to be grateful for.

What was it like working with Shooter Jennings as producer?

Evan: Shooter is one of the most music knowledgeable people I’ve ever met. He loves every type of music and he knows what a good song is in any genre or style. It’s almost as natural as playing with the guys that I’ve known forever. We walked in and became very good friends in a very short amount of time. It was extremely comfortable working with him and somebody you can trust to know what’s going to be a good call and what you should step away from.

Kyle: He knows what he’s doing and always has an opinion, but it’s like he’s letting you find what you’re looking for. He’s certainly got a gift for doing this.

Ryan: He helped us put one foot in front of the other.

RC: He’s a master of handling the vibe or the pressure. Like Ryan talked about the different anxieties and stress of recording again, Shooter was the perfect person to guide us through that stuff and not let anyone get bogged down.

Gabe: You’re immediately at ease with him and you can trust his taste. Anything you can bring up that’s cool, Shooter already knows about it. He knows what’s hip or what cool drum parts sound like. You can trust his direction. And he eats a lot of candy — and I like that about him.

How does A Cat in the Rain announce a new era, or even a new sound, for the band?

Evan: It’s much bigger. The vocals have a lot more crazy harmonies that we always wanted to do but didn’t have somebody to help us get from the idea to the finished product. I got to explore concepts and hear them as a finished product.

Hank: I hope people will hear the album as a continuation of the direction the band has been headed in for a while. The sound of the album is very lush and rich and it’ll sound fresh to people. It’s the best-sounding Turnpike record. I think people will latch onto Evan’s lyrics like they always have. He's done nothing but gotten better and solidified his style and his poetic voice. As a band we’ve all matured. Ryan’s approach to the guitar was really different on this album. He shifted his approach to something more minimalist and vibey than he’s done in the past. And Shooter’s sound is a little psychedelic, which works really well.

Ryan: I wanted to leave a lot of room for the story of the songs. That was important and that’s what I stuck to in my guitar playing. Instead of playing chords and strumming a bunch, I was just playing notes. So, it’s not busy and it stands out — and it’s way easier to play live.

Gabe: We’re never going to not sound like Turnpike Troubadours, but we wanted to move forward musically and stretch our legs a little bit. If we make the same album we did last time, it’s just going to get stagnant. We wanted to continue pushing the ball forward. And we wanted to sound like a band. We haven’t completely achieved that before. To me, this album sounds a lot more musically mature.

The lead single “Mean Old Sun” is a planting of the flag, as if to say, “We’re back and here to stay.” The chorus goes “that mean old sun better rise up soon/if it’s ever gonna set on me.

Evan: It was a song about an outlaw in my mind. The character is this unrepentant gambler. And I came up with that line by turning different phrases and mixing metaphors together and thought it was interesting.

Hank: It’s the song on the album that really feels like it kicks you in the teeth. It has that defiant feel, but the whole album isn’t really like that. It’s introspective. Evan is talking about some serious shit on this album and it covers a huge range of emotions. “Mean Old Sun” stands on its own and is in its own place, but the rest of the songs keep the story going.

Evan, the imagery in your songwriting is so rich. In the song “The Rut,” you talk about elk and grouse hunting and somehow find a way to address sobriety too. The title track “A Cat in the Rain” has a lyric about “bayou dives and oyster knives.” How do you find inspiration for such specific objects?

Evan: Those were about places I’ve been and taking a scene that I know, or a surrounding that I know, and more or less placing the story in it. Most of that is pretty true; it’s not exactly how everything played out, but it’s very close to real life.

In the title track, you sing: “Never thought I’d catch myself so calm out in the open/as a Gulf storm deal in bucketloads and hits from every side.” Would you say that idea of standing strong in tough times is the theme of the album?

Evan: Yeah, to stop running. To learn how to not run away from things. In the first lines of that song, he’s more or less this stray out in the rain wandering around, and by the end, the character is handling a major storm and just living his life in it. There was a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, I’m paraphrasing: “The wise man in the storm praise not God for better weather, but for freedom of fear.” And of course, I got sober, so there’s tons of that stuff kicking around in my everyday life now. Some of that is going to get into my work.

“Brought Me” is the most personal song on the album. But it can be interpreted in many ways: as a pledge to be there for one another, to a romantic partner, to family…

Kyle: I was particularly proud of Evan because he was so honest in the songwriting process. Ev’ doesn’t always just lay it out there for you and it was good to see my buddy open up.

Gabe: He’s definitely singing to his wife on that one. Plenty of people write songs to their significant other, but what I like is that he’s vulnerable, but not in a cheesy way. It makes me feel good when I hear him say those things. That’s really cool to me: hearing him sing songs to his wife.

Evan: It’s about our fans, honestly. Or the idea of a crowd and being able to play for a crowd or having the attention of an audience. It’s sort of a thank you to people who stuck with us through this. The fact we get to come back and play for these amazing crowds that are thousands and thousands of people singing along? It’s an expression of gratitude.

What does the rest of the band think of Evan’s writing for this record?

RC: I was blown away by some of the imagery and how real it all was. Just picturing all he’d been through in a few years and how he was processing it all. You get that peek into your friend’s diary in a way. I never had any doubts, but I was excited to finally see them, hear them, and record them.

Ryan: A testament to any of the songs is that I catch myself getting teared up during certain lines, just because I can relate so easily to them.

But A Cat in the Rain is a full band effort too. RC provided the song “Chipping Mill.” Turnpike collaborator John Fullbright wrote “Three More Days.” Why was it important to include those?

Evan: RC brought “Chipping Mill” and it was great. It matched up well with the theme of what we had so far. And the Fullbright song we always wanted to do. I always loved “Three More Days” and now I think of my daughter when I’m hearing it or singing it.

A Cat in the Rain has a pair of cover songs: Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Black Sky” and the song that ends the album, “Won’t You Give Me One More Chance,” popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker.

Hank: Most of our albums have covers on them, because we want to play the songs we like, and it lends a lot of context to where we’re coming from. We’d been threatening to play that Ozark Mountain Daredevils song for as long as I’ve been in the band. We’ve played it in rehearsals at Evan’s house before, but we never got around to it onstage.

Evan: Jerry Jeff passed away in the middle of all this stuff. And probably my most listened-to records were Jerry Jeff records. He’s my favorite, so we wanted to do something as a tribute to him.

What do you hope listeners — both longtime fans and the newly initiated — take away from the album?

Ryan: That things can turn around and that it pays to be hopeful for the future.

Kyle: That you can redeem yourself. It doesn’t always have to end in a shitty way. Whether we’re talking relationships, jobs, or just life, period. It’s important that you look out for one another and I hope this album creates some memories for people.

Hank: Bands don’t always age well or get better over time. Whenever some of my favorite bands put out a new record, I listen with a really critical ear. Have they lost the edge? What made them good? I want people to listen to this album and think, “Holy shit, they found their fastball.” And for it give the fans confidence that we’re going to be around and keep making great music as long as they want to hear it.

Evan: I certainly hope that people realize that you can come back from a lot. Just because things look bad doesn’t mean that that’s the way it has to end.

So what do you see in the next five years for Turnpike?

Evan: That we’ll keep playing shows, no matter what sizes they may be, and keep recording and writing songs. I honestly feel I’m just now learning how to do it. it’s one of the most fulfilling things in my life and I’m really grateful to do this work, share these songs with people, and get to have that connection with our crowd. It’s absolutely a new chapter.

For more information, contact Carla Sacks 212.741.1000 ,
Asha Goodman or Catherine Snead 615.320.7753 at Sacks & Co.