On “A Cat in the Rain” Turnpike Troubadours give us a glimpse into the struggles of the past few years and reassure us they can still produce quality, red dirt country.
There were many times over the last four years when this record seemed inconceivable. With the band on an indefinite hiatus, following frontman and songwriter Evan Felker’s breakdown, there was a chance we’d heard the last of the Turnpike Troubadours.
With Felker getting sober, and with some firm guard rails around his return to playing live, the band began touring and recording again in 2022.
A Cat in the Rain is a comeback album. It’s release is emblematic of the unlikely, yet triumphant, story that is the Turnpike Troubadours of 2023. A while back (early 2019 to be a little more precise) things came apart at the seams. This was at a time when the band’s recognition and success was at an all time high. Put simply, without a functioning lead man and songwriter the band couldn’t go on.
Away from the distracting and escapist comfort of the road, and with the fortitude it took to face his demons, Felker turned things around. As with the band, it appears he has come out stronger on the other side. And with fans flocking to their shows in the past 15 months, support has only grown. There’s a lot of love at these recent live shows as well as gratitude and understated forgiveness. For the band, and for Felker in particular, there’s redemption in all of it.
Given the circumstances of its release it might be tempting to assess the merits of this album with wide and fawning eyes. Indeed, it’s existence is a feat in itself. On any assessment this is a strong Turnpike Troubadours album. But it doesn’t introduce a new direction or change of style, and it would be bold to say this is their absolute best effort yet. However, what it does do is ground the band firmly in its roots at a time when they need it most. It signals a brave return and a message that the band is back in town and hopefully here to stay.
I read somewhere that Felker is an Ernest Hemmingway fan. ‘Papa’s’ short stories, one of which shares the same title as this album, often employ the iceberg theory to writing (or theory of omission). This is where only limited but important facts about a story become evident, leaving much of the real structure under the surface for the reader to deduce. This should sound familiar to Turnpike fans. Felker often gives us clear descriptions of situations pertinent to his lyrical storytelling, yet there always a lot bubbling away under the surface. Many of the songs on A Cat in the Rain are no exception.
The band announces its return together, in an ominous and eerie fashion at the start of the opening track and first single, “Mean Old Sun”, with curdled backing vocals chanting behind a lone banjo. Lyrically, this is Felker defining the period he spent recently in the wilderness, putting in the work to be strong enough to return. This one hits with a heavy beat and makes a strong statement. It’s the anthemic “Gin, Smoke, Lies” ten years on, with the production befitting a world class country band.
“Brought Me” is next. And it’s a hard ask not to have this hook-soaked gem on repeat. This is the kind of track Turnpike fans will have been waiting for during the six years between albums. Combining country, red dirt and cajun influences this is an affecting love song to the Turnpike community to say thank you for waiting. There are also reassurances: “Oh now, it still beats steady/This heart I handed you for free/Should you ever need a thing/It won’t be hard to find.”
Written by emerging artist Lance Roark and bassist R.C. Edwards, “Chipping Mill” is a catchy, familiar track, jostling for air with classic upbeat Turnpike songs such as “Morgan Street” or “7&7”. “A Cat in the Rain”, “East Side Love Song” and dark, western “Lucille” have Felker contemplating his muse with varying degrees of intensity. Interestingly, the persistent character of Lorrie is noticeably absent on this record.
Felker does hunting songs well and “The Rut” is no exception. Reminiscing about family trips into the mountains, the songwriter uses this opportunity to reflect honestly about his struggles with alcohol and the resolve he is now applying to create a better life. “I don’t miss the taste of liquor or really anything about it/But the temporary shelter was a welcome compromise/Oh friend, I’m gonna ride out of the rut I’m in/A little elevation and an open-ended prayer.” The southern country cover of Ozark Mountain Daredevils “Black Sky” is an interesting choice and a change of pace for a record that, stylistically, is otherwise not a significant departure from previous Turnpike outings.
Producer Shooter Jennings has managed to maintain much of the familiar Turnpike sound while bringing things up a notch, certainly compared to the early albums. The band is playing as well as they ever have. And Jennings has allowed each member’s contribution to shine, perhaps moreso than on previous albums. The team effort is emphasised in the final moments of the last song on the record, a cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Won’t You Give Me One More Chance” with the band singing their appeal in unison, just as they came in.