As readers may gather from previous reviews, I have a conflicted relationship with country music. I love the guitar-based sound, two-step rhythms, and well-worn themes of heartbreak and hard-living. That said, I have a really hard time with what contemporary country music has become – a slickly produced pop parody of its former self, mass marketed to the lowest common denominator and promoting a crude stereotype of the “real” America. No, I don’t think Hank done it this way. But I do think Hank would take comfort knowing that bands like the Turnpike Troubadours – who in May released their third album, Goodbye Normal Street – are still putting out quality country music, even if only at the margins of the radio mainstream.
That’s not to say the Troubadours – especially on this most recent album – have a sound that would be completely foreign in Nashville. No, the basic ingredients of a hit machine are there. The band combines great songwriting, solid musicianship, and youthful energy with a radio-friendly sound that blends equal parts Nashville twang, acoustic Americana, and southern rock.
Hyperbolium noted in an earlier review of this album that “The Troubadours deft mix of roots musics might be too complex for Nashville to market.” It’s also worth adding that the Troubadours write their own material from the heart, and in doing so may not quite appeal to Nashville’s baser instincts. Take for instance a two-song sequence from Goodbye Normal Street. “Southeastern Sun” and “Blue Star” both cover familiar territory on the contemporary country charts – the American soldier. However, rather than default to a shallow, jingoistic shout-out to the troops – which might sell more downloads and make for a CMT-worthy video – these songs actually endeavor to tell a story and express real emotion about the subject matter. The tired protagonist of “Southeastern Son” hopes his family will remember to keep the porch light on, while “Blue Star” flips the perspective to reflect a brother hoping his long-deployed sibling will hang up the rifle and come home soon. There’s no loving or hating America; it’s just human beings expressing human emotions, which is what country music has always done best.
By comparison to the Troubadours’ previous album (the also excellent Diamonds and Gasoline), Goodbye Normal Street is a little tighter in terms of songwriting, musicianship, and overall production values. The band’s sound has subtly evolved in a direction that should broaden their appeal without alienating the roots music faithful. It can be hard for even the hardest-working and most committed bands to maintain an original sound when the mass market beckons — and the Turnpike Troubadours certainly have the chops to go that direction — but Goodbye Normal Street suggests this band intends to stay true to the fans and their roots muse.