Late last month, the Turnpike Troubadours embarked on a much-buzzed-about return to music, putting their first new shows on the books since announcing an indefinite break in May 2019. In a new interview with Rolling Stone, the group explain the reasons behind their split, the pursuits that kept them busy during their time away from the spotlight and their plans for the way ahead.
Though Turnpike has been among Americana’s leading roots acts for upwards of a decade, many country fans are just learning about them for the first time during their resurgence: So who is this Oklahoma six-piece? Read on to find out.
For the uninitiated, the Turnpike Troubadours formed in 2005 out of eastern Oklahoma, assembling a lineup that would eventually include frontman Evan Felker, lead guitarist Ryan Engleman, fiddle player Kyle Nix, bassist R.C. Edwards, drummer Gabe Pearson and steel guitar and accordion player Hank Early.
The group started gaining momentum in the Oklahoma and Texas Red Dirt scenes, and put out their debut album, the now-hard-to-find Bossier City, in late 2007. It was the first of five projects they’d put out over the next decade, each of which reached a steadily larger audience. Their self-titled 2015 album charted inside the Top 5 on Billboard’s U.S. Country, Folk, Rock and Indie charts, and two years later, A Long Way From Your Heart — the band’s most recent album to date — brought them more mainstream success than ever before.
Particularly with the release of A Long Way, the Turnpike Troubadours cemented their status as skilled, poetic storytellers who could also put on a rollicking live show. But that wasn’t all that Turnpike was known for: Increasingly, they were gaining a reputation with fans for their volatility and interpersonal strife.
In early 2018, Turnpike hit the road as support for Miranda Lambert’s Livin’ Like Hippies Tour — a bill that also included fellow opening act Jon Pardi. The rumor mill began to link Felker to Lambert that spring. US Weekly broke the news that the two singers were dating, presenting a muddy chronology between Lambert’s breakup from another musician, Anderson East, and her pairing with Felker.
But the drama was high on Felker’s side, too: He was married to Staci Felker, and had been since 2016. The couple filed for divorce in a split that left Staci feeling “full-on ghosted,” a source told People at the time. The singer-songwriter’s wife was vocal, if vague, on her Instagram stories and other social media about her heartbreak.
Even Blake Shelton — who was previously married to Lambert — seemed to get in on the salacious drama, posting an unspecific-yet-curiously-timed tweet that said “Been taking the high road for a long time…I almost gave up. But I can finally see something on the horizon up there!! Wait!! Could it be?! Yep!! It’s karma!!”
Lambert and Felker’s alleged romance came to an end in mid-2018, and Turnpike dropped out of the lineup of her The Bandwagon Tour. But the band’s bumpy road wasn’t smoothing out just yet, as his struggles with addiction were beginning to affect their live shows. In October 2018, a since-deleted Instagram post from the band offered some thoughts behind the first cancellation.
“Right now, we have a situation that needs our complete attention…As much as we would all love to keep touring, we love our family member more and need to be there to make sure he is able to conquer the issues with which he is struggling,” they wrote, without commenting on exactly which “family member” that was, or the nature of the issues he was addressing.
After continuing to cancel shows on and off over that fall and winter, the band posted another letter to their fans in another since-deleted post, this time announcing that they were going on an “indefinite hiatus” and asking that fans “keep us in your thoughts and prayers” as they focused on healing. The full note is available to read on Taste of Country.
The band mates went their separate ways, with Felker keeping an especially low profile. Just over a year later, he told Rolling Stone that he’d found sobriety and was still very much focused on making music. But it wouldn’t be until late 2021 that the six musicians came back together, ready to move forward as the Turnpike Troubadours once again.
What had they been doing in the meantime? In the new Rolling Stone interview, Edwards and Nix explain that they’d spent a lot of time working in other bands. Engleman spent some time touring with country rock group Reckless Kelly, Pearson went back to school in pursuit of his bachelor’s degree and Early got married, as well as producing some records — including one Edwards worked on with his band, RC and the Embers.
Though he was the least publicly visible Troubadour during the band’s hiatus, Felker had been busy, too. He had spent his days working on a ranch in Southeast Texas, and he reconciled with Staci, marrying her for a second time. The couple welcomed a daughter, Evangelina, in January 2021. Staci announced her daughter’s birth on Instagram in a post that also formally shared with fans that the two were back together.
“Y’all welcome my husband Evan Felker back to my grid after a few years off,” she wrote. “He’s here to introduce our first born.” Since then, Staci has frequently updated fans with baby snaps and family photos on her social media.
Felker took part in a Cystic Fibrosis Foundation virtual benefit show orchestrated by Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s, which, Rolling Stone says, Miller hoped would be an “easy first step back into the public eye” for the singer.
Now, with fresh tour dates on the horizon, Felker and the rest of Turnpike is hoping to take a bigger step back into the music world as a band again. For Felker, learning how to get and stay sober is the biggest positive change he’s undergone over the past couple of years.
“…that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I’m coming up on two years, completely sober and out of recovery,” he tells Rolling Stone in the newest interview. “And a few days after that will be my daughter’s first birthday, so it’s all a big one. I’ve learned so much about how my life was not well-rounded. I mean I knew that. I knew that it was just one thing. It started out just being music, and then eventually it was just drinking, and that was it for me.”