Concert preview: Turnpike Troubadours at Athenaeum Theatre

Andy Downing
Photo by David McClister

Update: The band recently announced it was canceling all shows through Nov. 29, including the Columbus stop, due to "a situation that needs our complete attention."

Turnpike Troubadours bassist R.C. Edwards described the band as a “10-year overnight success,” alluding to the slow and steady career build that has seen the Oklahoma country sextet progress from performing in empty beer halls to headlining sold-out theater shows in such an understated manner that even fellow musicians have been caught unaware of this arc.

“I remember we were playing somewhere recently and some opener made some snarky comment about us having a bus, like, ‘Must be nice to jump on a bus your first tour,'” Edwards said, and laughed. “I was like, ‘Man, we've been living in a van five years. Just because you just now met us doesn't mean we haven't been out on the road, sleeping in living rooms and in vans, six of us piled into one hotel room, taking trips to the motel swimming pool to clean up because all of you are trying to shower in that 30 minutes before you get kicked out.'”

This slow burn has allowed Turnpike Troubadours to develop at a more leisurely pace than its freeway-conjuring name might attest, amassing a deep catalog of rich, blue-collar character studies populated by the friends, family members and neighbors who reside in the small Oklahoma towns the band members still call home. On the Troubadours' most recent album,A Long Way from Your Heart, from 2017, the ne'er-do-well slugging his way through “The Hard Way” (“I'm gonna figure out the hard way/How fast I can wear my welcome out”) bumps up against the couple that loses a house to fire but can't stop counting its blessings as it stands outside watching the conflagration.

“Those are our people. It's where we came from. It's where we still live,” said Edwards, who grew up in a small eastern Oklahoma town dominated by horse pastures and cattle fields.

Though the songs' characters appear to fall on opposite ends of the moral spectrum, the tunes share a similar level of craft. “The devil's in the fine detail,” frontman Evan Felker sings on one tune, a line that unwittingly highlights the musicians' careful attention to song construction.

“The song is always the first thing for us,” said Edwards, who joins his bandmates in concert at the Athenaeum Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 1.

According to Edwards, this is as true now as it was when the bandmates first got their start playing together more than a decade back — a reality that can still feel a bit surreal to the bassist, who said he'd never kept any job for 10 years prior to launching Turnpike Troubadours.

“You walk onstage once in a while and think about when you were playing in the corner of some bar for no people in the same city, and now there are these big crowds and big shows,” Edwards said. “There's this place, the Red Barn; it's one of the first places we ever played. It was a beer joint — it didn't even have whiskey unless you snuck it in — and you had to move the pool table and set up in a corner and play right on the concrete floor. Now we play a big theater room in that town, and it really puts everything in perspective when you get a chance to sneak over there and have a beer before the show.”

The Athenaeum Theatre

8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1

32 N. Fourth St., North Side

ALSO PLAYING: Charley Crockett

Turnpike Troubadours