It’s been nearly four months since indie juggernauts, the Turnpike Troubadours, made their triumphant return with A Cat in the Rain back in August. It felt like one of those moments where the entire independent country community banded together and celebrated one of the best bands in the industry finally reuniting to give us new music.
This is, of course, a testament to just how brilliant of a band Turnpike truly is and how good their body of work has been since their debut in 2010. This is easily one of the most difficult rankings to compose simply due to how consistent the Oklahoma band is.
With time to digest their fifth album and the end of the year closing in, I thought it was the perfect time to rank all five of their studio albums. Without further ado, let’s get into the ranking.
5. A Cat in the Rain
It’s hard to deny the importance of A Cat in the Rain; it’s arguably the most important record they’ve released due to Evan Felker’s sobriety. That being said, the album fell a bit flat.
I think the main thing missing from the record is a true spark. While it’s clear that Felker and Co. were more focused on delivering a lyrically-focused album, it feels like the production was a bit of an afterthought. It’s not a poorly produced album by any stretch of the imagination; boring is a better way to put it.
Felker’s writing has always been a focal point of the band’s music. However, Turnpike has done a better job combining his brilliant lyricism with compelling instrumentation much better in their older records.
When I think about the records above this one, I can always point to a song or two that simply feels like the band let loose on it. Whether it’s Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead, 7 & 7 or The Mercury, there’s always that spark plug moment, A Cat in the Rain is missing that.
Ultimately, A Cat in the Rain is a good record. However, I cannot say that it truly lives up to the impossibly high expectations that the band has set with their first four albums pre-hiatus. This collection of songs didn’t immediately grab my attention in the way the previous ones did.
While Chipping Mill, Three More Days and East Side Love Song (Bottoms Up) capture what I feel is the classic Turnpike charm and sound, A Cat in the Rain feels like it is missing that spark that makes their first four records so incredible.
Read my entire thoughts on the album here.
Standout Track: Three More Days
4. The Turnpike Troubadours
It feels extremely unfair to have an album as good as Turnpike’s self-titled 2015 release as low as it is. However, that’s what happens when you have a discography as great and consistent as Turnpike does.
This record has some of their most underrated tracks in my opinion. Whether it’s the longing reflection of celebrating the new year on Ringing in the Year, the simple but sweet A Little Song or wild, western-inspired Doreen, the album is fiIled front-to-back with some of the most quietly brilliant songs Turnpike has to offer.
These three tracks prove how rare a band like Turnpike is. In today’s country landscape, most bands/artists usually fall into two categories: low-fi and lyrical or instrumental and lyrically lacking. With Felker’s writing and the band’s incredible instrumentation, Turnpike falls somewhere right in the middle.
It’s also hard to ignore just how strong this album starts out. Right out of the gate, you get fan favorites, The Bird Hunters, The Mercury and Down Here, making it one of the most successful three-song stretches the band has on any album.
I do think that tracks like Time of Day and 7 Oaks fade to the background of this album. With that being said, they are far from being bad songs. Simply put, a lower-tier Turnpike song is better than most band’s best songs.
Standout Track: A Little Song
3. Goodbye Normal Street
It’s a nearly monumental task to follow up on a debut album as good as Diamonds & Gasoline. However, Goodbye Normal Street proved here that their first album was not a one-off masterpiece; it was simply setting the standard.
The record is arguably Turnpike at their most folk-rock influenced. Tracks like Gin, Smoke, Lies, Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead and Morgan Street all provide some incredible boot-stompin’ moments throughout the record.
In true Felker fashion, he balances these high-energy tracks with melancholy songs like Gone Gone Gone and Empty As a Drum that capture the feeling of longing.
None capture this feeling as well as Empty As a Drum. Felker does such a wonderful job subtly creating suspense in this song. The way he sets the scene at the bar, describing the bartender, patrons and the woman he’s waiting on puts you directly into his shoes. Like him, you begin to anxiously wait for her to show up.
He wraps this song up brilliantly by quickly and unceremoniously depicting her walking in like nothing happened. The juxtaposition between Felker’s overthinking and her casualness in the situation serves as a great depiction of how anxiety and passion manifest in even the most mundane settings.
I, of course, have to mention the standout track, Good Lord Lorrie. Being one of the most popular Turnpike songs for a reason, this song is as close to perfect as a country song to be.
The amount of subtle world-building present in this song, from introducing the character of Lorrie who will reappear in many songs throughout the following albums to providing details like having to go to the next town over to buy liquor, is top-notch.
Standout Track: Good Lord Lorrie
2. A Long Way from Your Heart
A Long Way from Your Heart once again proves how rare of a band Turnpike is. As I mentioned earlier, they are at their best when they are equally balancing their powerhouse instrumentals with Felker’s introspective songwriting.
You get that and then some. This might be the most reserved album sonically other than A Cat in the Rain with some incredibly melancholy tracks like Pay No Rent, Old Time Feeling (Like Before) and Sunday Morning Paper.
However, they are still balanced by some infectious songs like Something to Hold on To, The Winding Stair Mountain Blues and A Tornado Warning. Kyle Nix’s fiddle is simply top-notch on these songs and harkens back to an older, bluegrass style that Turnpike dabbles in from time to time.
It’s clear that Turnpike wanted to make a more subtle, introspective album here on A Long Way from Your Heart, and it works marginally better than A Cat in the Rain did despite some of their similarities.
Standout Track: Old Time Feeling (Like Before)
1. Diamonds & Gasoline
There have been some incredible debut albums in country music over the years. From Brooks & Dunn’s Brand New Man to Johnny Cash’s With His Hot and Blue Guitar, there have been a plethora of career-defining debuts that have stood the test of time. Diamonds & Gasoline is no different from the Turnpike Troubadours.
This record is the definition of a no-skip album with all 12 tracks feeling just as meaningful and well-realized as the rest. Like I’ve mentioned previously, Turnpike is at its best when they balance Felker’s lyrics with instrumentation, and I still don’t think that an album quite captures that better than Diamond & Gasoline.
There’s truly something for everyone on this album. For those who like romping, high-energy songs, Every Girl, 7 & 7 and Long Hot Summer Day provide a quick jolt of energy. For those who like a more classic approach to story-telling and instrumentation, Shreveport and Evangeline provide heavy doses of fiddle, harmonica and intricate world-building throughout.
While I wouldn’t say that Turnpike peaked on Diamonds & Gasoline given how consistent their following records have been since then, I still view it as their magnum opus. It’s one of the best country records of the 21st century for a reason.
Standout Track: 7 & 7