In boxing and mixed martial arts, it’s common to hear the term “best pound-for-pound fighter” when someone is discussing the merits of a dominant fighter who is in one of the smaller weight classes. Such a clarifying term is necessary because it’s doubtful that Manny Pacquiao, as lethal as he was in his prime a few years back, would’ve been able to take down former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield in his vicious prime. But just because Pacquiao couldn’t KO Holyfield, it doesn’t mean that his pure skills as a pugilist were inferior. For many years now, the consensus best boxer has rarely been the heavyweight champ, and in music, the best artists aren’t necessarily the celebrated veterans with a dozen years and many albums under their belts.
And so it goes with the Turnpike Troubadours. Oklahoma’s current country kings are absolutely better than most bands, especially better than most of the ones that make up the current Texas country and red dirt scene. With the release of last year’s kick-ass self-titled record, the Evan Felker-led outfit has not only become as popular (if not more so) than many national country acts, but they can also match up with any of the regional scene’s most celebrated acts. A Troubadours live show is widely deemed to be among the best, if not the best around. Ultimately, the Turnpike Troubadours are the best song-for-song band in the Red River region.
Let’s start by checking out the past three records the group has released: 2010’s Diamonds and Gasoline, 2012’s Goodbye Normal Street and the most recent record. We’ll leave the group’s solid 2007 debut, Bossier City, out of this convo, so we have a more concise target range. Each record is filled with earnest lyrics that feel poetic yet free of pretense, and full of expert country musicianship. Slower, rootsier tunes, such as “Gin, Smoke, Lies,” are just as engaging as the more energetic, catchy tunes, like “Every Girl." With its rare cover song choices, the band can convincingly sound old school (John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Day”) or kick it new school with authority (Old 97’s “Doreen”). When dealing with the broad scope of the country sonic palette, there’s nothing these guys can’t pull off with a high level of mastery.
After that, grab the three most recent records from pretty much any other established veteran group from Texas or Oklahoma that has helped give rise to the popularity of Texas country or red dirt. Bands such as Pat Green, Jason Boland and the Stragglers, and Randy Rogers Band are great barometers, given each’s longevity and popularity. Each of those artists has been around for many years longer than Turnpike Troubadours, and has released many more albums. Each can also draw impressive crowds in many parts of the country beyond the Big 12 Conference states. Of course, the Troubadours are, for the most part, currently headlining festivals above each of the aforementioned acts, other than Randy Rogers Band. Even when stacked against other bands, it’s easy to see the relatively young Turnpike Troubadours are out-punching their weight class in a tremendous manner.
Pat Green has released 10 albums since beginning in 1995. But his past three albums — 2009’s boring, benign What I’m For, 2012’s decent, if unremarkable, covers album, Songs I Wish I’d Written II, and 2015’s return to form, Home — represent an artist who’s earned his spot in front of thousands of fans every night, but is years removed from his best records.
Over the course of eight studio albums and 17 years, Jason Boland and the Stragglers have endured as a reliable, entertaining red dirt beacon. Given the group’s Oklahoma roots, love for country tradition and authentic outlaw spirit, comparisons between the Stragglers and Turnpike are natural. But again, the group’s three most recent albums, including last year’s Squelch, aren’t really much a match for the younger Okies' current crop. Over the course of their career, Boland’s crew has been steady, but certain albums — 2004’s Bourbon Legend and 2011’s Rancho Alto, for example — sound like a step down when compared to the albums they are each sandwiched by. Before any misunderstandings can flower, however, let it be said that a subpar album from Boland is more enjoyable than most others’ best albums.
Randy Rogers Band simply hasn’t released an album that’s less than fantastic, but that’s just how high the bar is. As well done as the newly released Nothing Shines Like Neon and 2013’s Trouble both are, Burning the Day from 2010 does bring the trio down just barely enough in terms of collective brilliance. To be fair, if we were to compare the second, third and fourth albums from RRB for a true side-by-side comparison, this whole exercise could very well have a different tone, due to the strength of Rollercoaster from 2004 (which should be at or near the top of anyone’s all-time best Texas country albums list) and 2008’s self-titled LP. But that was then, and we’re talking about now.
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Perhaps a decade from now, we’ll realize that even the Turnpike Troubadours are past their prime. Maybe the guys will still be making good records, just not as consistently as they have been in recent years. Who knows? If that happens, it will be understandable. But for now, it’s a good idea to catch them live, because there’s nothing like seeing champs take the ring when they're on top of the world.