Home Live Review The Turnpike Troubadours w/ Lucero and Reckless Kelly @ The Anthem — 9/23/23

The Turnpike Troubadours w/ Lucero and Reckless Kelly @ The Anthem — 9/23/23

The Turnpike Troubadours w/ Lucero and Reckless Kelly @ The Anthem — 9/23/23
Turnpike Troubadours (Photo by David McClister)

Late in their recent set at The Anthem, red dirt band Turnpike Troubadours paid tribute to the late Charlie Robison by covering his song “My Hometown.”

Robison, who passed away earlier this month at 59, came from a musical family: His brother, Bruce, is also a singer-songwriter. Charlie embodied the renegade spirit of the scene that gave birth to the Oklahoma-based Troubadours; Charlie didn’t pull any punches, and he wasn’t afraid to criticize anyone. Sometimes, this resulted in statements that pushed the limits of people’s comfort, but, as a recent article reminded me, he stood up for the right things, like calling out the music industry for giving a star who committed domestic violence a free pass.

The Turnpike Troubadours were making their first appearance in the DC area in several years when they performed at The Anthem on Sept. 23. In 2019, they’d gone on hiatus. Lead singer and lyricist Evan Felker sought treatment for alcohol abuse, and they made their return to touring a few years later, as bands were starting to go on the road after we were hit by the Covid pandemic. Earlier this year, they released their first album in several years, A Cat In The Rain.

A sold-out crowd got to experience a long, full night of music Saturday, as the Troubadours were joined by Austin’s Reckless Kelly and Memphis’s Lucero. Honoring influences and predecessors was a theme that echoed throughout the night. When Reckless Kelly came out to open the show, they started by announcing it was Bruce Springsteen’s birthday and covered the Boss’s “From Small Things (Big Things Come).” Their set also included a twanged-up version of Richard Thompson’s acoustic ballad “Vincent ’52 Black Lightning,” which they dedicated to “all the redheaded motorcycle aficionados out there.” Just before they paid tribute to Robison, the Troubadours honored another one of there heroes, the late John Hartford, by playing his “Long Hot Summer Days.”

Reckless Kelly, built around brothers Willy and Cody Braun, who originally hail from Stanley, Idaho, has been together for 28 years. Introducing “Wild Western Windblown Band,” Willy said, “I thought about doing a new song, but I decided to do the same shit I’ve been doing for 28 years.” After kicking things off with the Springsteen cover, they did “Nobody’s Girl,” a song written by their brother Mickey, who fronts Mickey & The Motorcars. Before “Seven Nights In Eire,” Willy said, “Let’s see if we can turn this [place] into an Irish pub.” (The crowd at an Irish pub probably consumes less alcohol, per capita, than the audience at the Anthem Saturday night; between the bands’ sets, the lines for the bar stretched as far as I’ve ever seen.)

Watch Reckless Kelly perform “Wild Western Windblown Band” live on YouTube:

Reckless Kelly continued with another old favorite, “Wicked Twisted Road,” and rounded out the set with “Vancouver,” “I Only See You With My Eyes Closed,” and “Castanets.” I’ve heard rumors that Reckless Kelly is winding down its run, so if you’re thinking about going to see them, you should jump on the opportunity while you still can.

Frontman Ben Nichols introduced Lucero by saying, “We’re Lucero from Memphis, and we’re here to play some heartbreak songs.” Nichols comes from a creative family; his brother, Jeff, is a filmmaker who has directed movies that range from science-fiction (Midnight Special) to historical drama (Loving, about the interracial Virginia couple whose case went to the Supreme Court where they successfully challenged bans on interracial marriage); Jeff has occasionally enlisted Ben to provide music for his films. 

Lucero delivered on their promise of heartbreak songs immediately by starting with “Baby Don’t You Want Me.” That wasn’t the only heartbreak song: their set also included “Macon If We Make It” and “To My Dearest Wife.” There’s a certain bleakness to many of their songs, like “Coffin Nails,” but also a  streak of hope in tunes like “I Can Get Us Out of Here” and “Ain’t So Lonely.” Their wild edge showed up in “Raising Hell.” Their set also included “Texas & Tennessee” and finished off with “Nights Like These.”

Watch Lucero perform “Texas & Tennessee” live for WNRN on YouTube:

As I mentioned above, the Turnpike Troubadours are considered a “Red Dirt” band. A subgenre of country music that blends it with folk, rock, and blues elements, it takes its name from the color of the soil in Oklahoma. Rather than being united by a specific sound, the Red Dirt scene is defined geographically, have begun and being centered around Stillwater, Oklahoma. (The Troubadours are from Tahlequah, Oklahoma.) Like many of the artists and bands classified as Red Dirt, the Troubadours have also been described as playing Americana or alt-country. Seeing the similarities between them and Reckless Kelly and Lucero, that makes sense.

Since their formation in 2007, the Troubadours have stuck to a strictly independent business model, and they’ve managed to achieve a rare level of success in doing so. They release their albums on their own label, Bossier City Records. Though they were strong records, their first two albums, Bossier City (2007) and Diamonds & Gasoline (2010) failed to chart. Their commercial breakthrough came with their third album, 2012’s Goodbye Normal Street, which reached No. 14 on the country charts and No. 57 in the US overall charts. Their next, self-titled album, released in 2015, climbed even higher, reaching No. 3 on the country and No. 17 on the overall charts.  Their subsequent albums continued to chart, with 2017’s A Long Way From Your Heart climbing to No. 3 on the country No. 20 on the overall charts, and this year’s A Cat In The Rain going to No. 9 country and No. 34 overall. There have been other popular bands associated with Red Dirt, like Cross Canadian Ragweed, but no one from that scene is bigger than the Troubadours now.

It was already late when the Troubadours took the stage, but that didn’t stop them from playing a long set. They came on stage just after 9:30 and played for nearly two hours. While they’re touring behind A Cat In The Rain, it didn’t get the most play, with just three tracks from the album in the set: “Mean Old Sun,” “Brought Me,” and “Chipping Mill” all came in the middle of the set. Diamonds & Gasoline got the most play with six tunes: “Every Girl,” “7&7,” “Kansas City Southern,” “Whole Damn Town,” the title track, and “Shreveport,” in their encore.

Watch the official music video for “Mean Old Sun” by Drab Majesty on YouTube:

Goodbye Normal Street, the Troubadours’ breakthrough album, got almost as much play. They kicked off their set with “Gin, Smoke & Lies,” followed by another cut from the record, “Good Lord Lorrie.” The set also included “Wrecked” and “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead,” with “Morgan Street in the encore. Other songs in the set included “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues,” “The Mercury,” “Unrung,” “The Bird Hunters,” “A Tornado Warning,” and “For the Sake (When It Comes to Loving You).” They finished the main set with “Long Drive” and the encore with “Pay No Rent.”

This was a rowdy show, and the crowd was hot and alive, especially for the Troubadours. While they share an audience, to some degree, with mainstream, their audience is broader; I noticed several older people at the show, people who would be unlikely to be interested in the pop country coming out of the Nashville mainstream. The Troubadours are a country band, but they’re what people who often complain about the genre call “real country.” Their songs and sound are authentic, not compromised to meet the demands of slick producers and the record company machines. The Troubadours aren’t alone in doing this, but they’ve managed to do it on a level and scale that almost no one else has.


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