Turnpike Troubadours make their return

The Turnpike Troubadours -- from left, R.C. Edwards, Gabe Pearson, Hank Early, Evan Felker, Ryan Engleman, Kyle Nix -- got started in 2005. The band is set to return Chilifest for the third time.

The Oklahoma band Turnpike Troubadours headlines Chilifest on Friday night, and after playing the Snook festival in 2014 and 2016, the band members know what to expect.

"It's an awesome crowd," bassist R.C. Edwards said in a recent phone interview. "A sea of people is what I remember from it. A sea of rowdy people. It was pretty fun to play to."

The band has long felt support from the area, Edwards says, dating back to playing "tiny bars," including the now-closed Schotzi's on Northgate: "We had a decent response then, and it's just kind of boomed since then."

Edwards, who hails from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and graduated from the University of Oklahoma, was raised on a blend of traditional country and the country of the day (Hank Williams Jr., Alabama, Dwight Yoakam). He says he detoured with a punk-rock "phase" in high school but "eventually worked my way back to country music." He gravitated toward the bass just out of necessity in his previous bands.

"I couldn't keep a bass player," he says with a laugh. "They kept quitting on me. So I just decided to play it myself."

The Troubadours -- Edwards, frontman Evan Felker, fiddler Kyle Nix, guitarist Ryan Engleman, drummer Gabe Pearson and steel guitar/accordion player Hank Early -- got started in 2005. The band is riding a wave of critical acclaim for its fourth album, A Long Way From Your Heart, which was released in October. Ryan Hewitt, who won a 2006 Grammy for his work on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Stadium Arcadium, produced the album. It reached No. 3 on the Billboard country albums chart.

The band has had a number of high-profile performances in the past year, including an appearance on Austin City Limits in February, on an episode that also featured Chris Stapleton. Edwards calls the experience "surreal."

"You grow up watching that," he says. "I got three TV channels where I grew up, and one of them was PBS. And we would watch Austin City Limits on Sundays, and that was like the coolest music you probably saw all week. … A dream come true, honestly."

The same goes for playing Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic in Austin last year. Edwards was able to say hello to the country legend at his trademark event.

"I always just wanted to go to Willie's picnic and never had," Edwards says. "So to play it was even bigger. It seemed like a dream. You've got Steve Earle and people like that hanging out and having lunch right next to you. You're just trying to play it cool."

The band has more big events on the horizon, including a summer arena tour with country star Miranda Lambert. Edwards says of the band's trajectory, "I kinda hope it never stops."

"It's always growing, always progressing," he says. "It keeps you excited for what's around the corner. You never know what's next. Hopefully it's something bigger and better all the time."

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