The old cliche is that country music is “three chords and the truth,” often set to stories. Very few songwriters can wring the words of truth out of a place or a moment and put it to music. Fewer still can create compelling narratives out of that truth, and give you short story snippets of a time and place you might not come from, but empathize with all the same because of how well that narrative is written. The king of those writers is John Prine. Others are Jason Isbell, Margo Price, BJ Barham, John Baumann.
And then there’s Evan Felker.
The frontman, head songwriter and co-founding member of Oklahoma’s Turnpike Troubadours has built a career out of crafting stories rich with detail, empathy and meaning. And on the Troubadours’ latest album, “A Long Way From Your Heart,” the stories are as rich as they’ve ever been.
There’s “The Housefire,” which turns the event of its title into a meditation on how to cope when your life’s work goes up in smoke. (Astute fans will also notice that Lorrie, of “Good Lord Lorrie,” “The Mercury” and other songs, also makes an appearance, an the narrator of this story also appears in “The Birdhunters.”)
There’s “Pay No Rent,” an ode to Felker’s aunt who recently passed away, a song full of lilting steel guitars at the hands of new band member Hank Early.
And then there’s “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues,” as heartbreaking a portrait of grief as Felker has ever penned.
Lest you think the subject matter is all dark, it’s not all heartbreak. And the musicianship on display on this, technically the Troubadours’ fifth album (counting the out-of-print “Bossier City”) is the most diverse soundscape they’ve put to record. Early’s steel guitar is a perfect addition to the band. Kyle Nix’s fiddle still burns through songs. RC Edwards’ bass lines become a bit more prominent. And parts of this album (”Something to Hold On To” and “Sunday Morning Paper”) flirt with 70s Southern rock.
Related: That leaked Turnpike Troubadours song is a collaboration with Bruce Robison
While not as immediately accessible as some of the songs on “Diamonds and Gasoline” or their self-titled album from 2015, the characters and the stories here stick with you. What happened to Lorrie and the narrator’s house? What will become of the lovers in “A Tornado Warning”? Will the narrator’s friend heed his warning in “Unrung”? Will the law catch up to the man in “Pipe Bomb Dream”? There's just enough details on the surface for listeners to take in a narrative and let it linger in their mind. “A Long Way From Your Heart” showcases the Troubadours in their best form.
“A Long Way from Your Heart” is out Friday, Oct. 20 wherever music is sold. The band will play ACL Live on Dec. 1 and 2.
1. “The Housefire”
2. “Something to Hold on To”
3. “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues”
5. “A Tornado Warning”
6. “Pay No Rent”
7. “The Hard Way”
8. “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)”
9. “Pipe Bomb Dream”
10. “Oklahoma Stars”
11. “Sunday Morning Paper”