The last time the Turnpike Troubadours played RodeoHouston in 2019, it could have very easily been one-and-done for the group. Just two months after turning in a grizzly set on the rodeo's revolving stage that year, band leader Evan Felker's offstage battles with the demons inhabiting the group's songs forced the band into an extended, somewhat hopeless hiatus hours before a sold-out set — at Houston's White Oak Music Hall no less.
No news wasn't good news, and die-hards consoled themselves with a handful of albums of jittery country rock. Absence and COVID only made the heart grow fonder.
Fans started 'Turnpike Reunion' savings accounts, made lovesick memes, virtually sighing into the ether for an end of the drought. The time away only cemented them as scene idols, and upon 2022's return, they took a rightful place next to new-school country acts like Zach Bryan, Margo Price, and Cody Jinks as somewhat-elder scene statesmen.
Even though the band last played the lawn at Houston's White Oak Music Hall in May 2022 – seemingly making up for that abrupt cancellation three years previous – the set on Saturday, March 11 inside NRG Stadium seemed like the Troobs' truest return to the Bayou City, picking back where they left off in 2019.
And what a return, with a crowd of 74,657 — one of the biggest rodeo shows to date.
Like Ferris Bueller, Turnpike brings together the country music tribes. Saturday night's matinee crowd was a healthy mix of well-scrubbed Midtown couples fresh off the corporate party bus, roving bands of leather cowgirl dresses, and tattooed, black-denim-clad outlaw country devotees straight from the Vinyl Ranch Instagram feed.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an act as rabidly revered as the six-piece Turnpike currently are, riding high on a reunification ritual a year deep with thousands of tickets sold across the country, including a legacy-defining two-night stand at the Red Rocks Amphitheater last May.
Now over a year into Turnpike 2.0 – as some have dubbed this incarnation – is a bonafide arena act. It's all been done without a proper new album of material since October 2017's lauded "A Long From Your Heart". A new album, according to Felker, looms on the horizon.
Mixing equal parts shambolic stomp from The Band, Uncle Tupelo, Paul Westerberg's most twangiest of adventures, and old-fashioned Oklahoma Red Dirt romp, the Troobs could seem like the most unlikely of RodeoHouston headliners, better suited for mid-size honky tonks, indie clubs, and your coolest friend's turntable. Formed in 2005, they've got some road under them.
On Saturday night, Turnpike returned to the revolving stage with "Every Girl" from 2010's "Diamonds & Gasoline" LP, a sturdy mission statement of an album that's seemed to influence everyone that's given it a spin. You can hear echoes of it even on the most plastic of pop-country albums. Nashville's ears are the biggest in the industry, able to Frankenstein parts from a not-Nashville act like Turnpike for something radio-friendly. It's a fascinating phenomenon and weirdly flattering.
2012's paper-hearted "Good Lord Lorrie" brought the Romeo & Juliet drama, the Americana-drunk "Morgan Street" and its fiddle cut like a saber.
In a perfect world, "Shreveport" could have turned the floor of NRG Stadium into the city's largest dirt dancehall. Shows like this would be perfect for a temporary dance floor where the muttons get busted. Fittingly, the custom Ford chariot came for the band as set-closer "Long Hot Summer Day" kicked off, sending the city's sweatiest people into the humid night air.
Turnpike 2.0 is comfortable with RodeoHouston's biggest of stages, which bodes well for the years ahead of what should be magical if new music is in the cards. The band is ready to grasp the next wrung of its choosing at its own pace, and lord knows some debts have been long since paid.
Before the Devil Knows We're Dead
The Bird Hunters
Good Lord Lorrie
Pay No Rent
A Tornado Warning
Gin, Smoke, Lies
Kansas City Southern
Long Hot Summer Day