“I remember smelling smoke/I woke up, I was choking/Lorrie grabbed the baby and we made it safe outside.” So begins Turnpike Troubadours’ A Long Way from Your Heart, with a family fleeing a burning house. It’s a stark place to start. The characters in this song lose everything but their lives, a photograph, and a shotgun. But the song that takes those things away, called “The Housefire,” is rollicking and lively instead of being dark and downtrodden. There’s even a ripping guitar solo in the song’s extended outro, while the ever-present fiddle—a crucial element of Turnpike Troubadours down-home country sound—flits through the arrangement almost triumphantly.
“Lord knows that I’ve been blessed/I can stand up to the test/I can live on so much less/This much I’ve been learning,” Evan Felker sings in the chorus, because “The Housefire” isn’t about a burning house; it’s about bidding farewell to material encumbrances and realizing what really matters following a crushing tragedy. It’s about finding hope in a dark turn of fate. In a word, it’s about resilience.
On the whole, those same descriptors apply to A Long Way from Your Heart as a whole. These songs are tinged with tragedy, but they are also populated by characters who carry on regardless. The title of the album comes from the bridge of “The Housefire,” where the narrator starts lamenting the “heavy blow” his family has just been dealt. “I’ll bet you make it, it’s a long way from your heart,” his wife responds wryly. You’ll survive, in other words. ‘Tis but a scratch!
That’s a powerful message, especially in a song about something that would bring anyone to their knees. But A Long Way from Your Heart is a record about enduring the hard times and cherishing the good ones, and it’s nothing short of life-affirming in that scope.
Album centerpiece “Pay No Rent” is a gorgeous ode for a lost family member, and about how “It takes a lot of blood and tears just to really love someone.” The narrator of “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)” is pining after a girl who moved away (and left him behind) to chase her dreams. And “Sunday Morning Paper” is a song about the brevity of life, told through the prism of a newspaper reporting the death of a beloved country-rock icon. By all accounts, these songs should be powerfully sad, and in part, they are. When Felker sings “Is all this living meant to be or a happy accident?/But in my heart, you pay no rent,” it’s the perfect encapsulation of what it means to carry a person in your heart even after they’re gone. But Turnpike Troubadours fit levity into these songs, weaving a complex patchwork of emotions that makes A Long Way from Your Heart deeper and more nuanced than it seems on first listen.
“Pay No Rent,” for instance, is more about recalling your favorite memories of a person than it is about mourning their loss. “Old Time Feeling (Like Before)” sees Felker nourishing his broken heart, even though he knows that if the girl he’s singing about ever comes back, she’ll play him like a violin once more. (“Well I don’t mind you playing me/Just keep it in a major key,” he sings, exuding humor, warmth, and self-awareness.) And “Sunday Morning Paper” is downright jaunty, filled with jazzy, saloon-worthy piano and tipsy fiddle. “Sunday morning paper said/Rock & Roll is surely dead/I don’t think I’ll ever let it go,” Felker intones at the very end, before adding a jokey tag: “Even though it’s just Rock & Roll.”
What makes Turnpike Troubadours so fun is that they don’t write songs about standard things—or at least, not in standard ways. That much was probably evident to anyone who heard the band’s 2015 self-titled effort, which kicked off with a detailed story about getting over a breakup while out hunting birds. A Long Way from Your Heart doesn’t quite reach the levels of Turnpike Troubadours. There’s no song quite as perfect as that album’s centerpiece divorce narrative “Long Drive Home,” which has the best Hank Williams callout of any modern country song. But the band’s talent for writing and arranging unique, thought-provoking songs is still intact. “Unrung,” for instance, is about watching a good friend fall for a girl half his age (“You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her/Hell, you bought it new”). “A Tornado Warning,” meanwhile, sees it’s narrator falling for a girl while they’re weathering a storm together. And “The Winding Stair Mountain Blues” is about a near-violent falling out between two lifelong friends—one an upstanding everyman, the other a loose cannon.
The interesting lyrical perspectives, paired with the amount of depth and detail behind each song, flag Evan Felker as one of the greatest songwriters in America right now. Easily, this guy could be a respected singer/songwriter, even if he just played these songs on an acoustic guitar. The fact that Turnpike Troubadours are one of the most musically accomplished bands in any genre takes the songs to another level, making them more potent, rousing, and impactful than they would be otherwise. From Kyle Nix’s deft fiddle playing to Ryan Engleman’s classic-sounding guitarwork, all the way to the accents of Hank Early’s pedal steel, these songs are exquisitely played and fully realized.
With their 2015 self-titled record, Turnpike Troubadours hit a new high, both musically and in terms of chart performance. The album peaked at 17 on the Billboard 200, and was a top five record on the country, folk, rock, and indie charts. With A Long Way from Your Heart, the band seems poised to reach even higher. The success is refreshing: country is a genre dominated by solo artists, so it’s nice to have an outfit like Turnpike Troubadours reminding everyone how great well-written songs can sound with the might of a seasoned, collaborative band behind them. Even if Turnpike Troubadours remain country’s best-kept secrets, though, they’ll probably be fine with it. Just like the characters in their songs, these guys are resilient enough to endure.