by Julian Spivey
While standing in line to get into the Metroplex in Little Rock, Ark. on Friday night (May 27) to see the Turnpike Troubadours for a third time I overheard a couple from Mississippi (it’s amazing how much you can learn eavesdropping) saying they’d never even heard of the Turnpike Troubadours and were there as big fans of Cody Canada, the opening act and former frontman of Cross Canadian Ragweed. By the time the clock struck midnight they damn well knew who the Turnpike Troubadours are – the best group in country music today. No, not that stuff you hear on the radio masquerading as country music, but real by-God country music with a fiddle, pedal steel and everything.
Arkansas’ own (from Harrison) Americana/Indie-Folk band National Park Radio opened the show at 8 p.m. with a cool sound that included already released stuff like “The Great Divide,” a terrific cover of the traditional folk song “Dooley” and good stuff from an album to be released in July like “Steady.”
Cody Canada and the Departed took the stage at 9 p.m. for a fantastic hour of rip-roaring country-rock that included recent selections from their 2015 album Hippielovepunk like “Inbetweener” and “Comin’ to Me.” These performances truly rocked, but it was the Cross Canadian Ragweed, a group Canada fronted from 1998-2010, stuff that really excited the packed crowd including “Hammer Down,” “Boys from Oklahoma” and my personal favorite performance of their set “17,” a song about hometowns many can identify with. The Departed’s set also featured some vintage country music, the real stuff that Canada bemoaned is never played on the radio anymore, in a cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “A11” led by bassist Jeremy Plato on vocals.
The Turnpike Troubadours took the stage at 10:30 p.m. and for the next 90 minutes they played a terrifically energetic show, as they always do, with everybody in the filled Metroplex singing and jamming along to every word. The Troubadours opened with “Doreen,” a cover of the Old 97’s song that appears on their 2015 self-titled album. It would be the only non-original the band would perform all night with the supremely talented group ripping through many of their greatest works in rapid succession from all three of their major studio releases like “Good Lord Lorrie,” “Every Girl,” “Shreveport,” “Whole Damn Town,” “Kansas City Southern” and my personal favorite Troubadours song “7&7.”
Many selections from the most recent album were in the set on Friday night like “Down Here,” “The Bird Hunters,” “Easton & Main,” “Bossier City” and the superbly rocking “The Mercury,” which topped this website’s list of the 100 Best Country Songs of 2015, and the fans loved every one and knew all the words to them.
Something I particularly enjoyed about the Troubadours show at the Metroplex on Friday night, which frontman Evan Felker announced was the coolest of the shows the group had done in Little Rock (I’d previously seen them twice at Little Rock’s Rev Room), was that the group included performances in the set that I’d not heard them do live the two previous times I’d seen them like “1968” and personal favorites “The Funeral” and “Diamonds & Gasoline,” which Felker performed acoustically by himself on stage.
Felker is for my money is the best songwriter currently in country music (if we shoehorn Jason Isbell into the Americana category, which I don’t necessarily always do) and a song like “The Funeral,” which tells the story of a rebel son returning to his hometown for his father’s funeral and how his family and family preacher view the outcast is a terrific example of how Felker’s songwriting can be like a Southern short story set to music. “The Bird Hunters” from last year’s album is another great example of this fact.
The entire group – Felker, guitarist Ryan Engleman, bassist R.C. Edwards, drummer Gabe Pearson and fiddle player Kyle Nix, who likely rivals Nick Worley of Jason Boland and the Stragglers as the genre’s best fiddle player of the moment, are highly energetic the entire show every single time you see them and truly seem to be having a blast on stage.
I can’t stress enough how great these guys from Oklahoma are and how underrated they are, because you aren’t likely to hear them on the radio, especially mainstream country radio. Look up their albums on Spotify, buy them on Amazon or their website and if they come anywhere near your hometown buy a ticket and you will be pleased beyond belief.