Flatpick fusion 

Trampled By Turtles shakes up bluegrass

Much like hardcore kids arguing in the letters section of Maximum Rock n’ Roll over how “punk” a given band is, or crusty old Internet-dwelling longhairs threatening violence on some newbie declaring a band “metal” that certainly is not “troo,” bluegrass fans can be…cantankerous. The genre is renowned for having its own cadre of vocal aficionados who take very seriously the notion that only artists playing their music a certain way should dare to call themselves “bluegrass.” For Trampled By Turtles guitarist and singer Dave Simonett, that isn’t a problem.

“We’ve never called ourselves a straight bluegrass band. We’ve never claimed that,” Simonett says. “I think if people call themselves that, or if they want to be known as a ‘bluegrass band’ then they should probably fit within the confines of that traditional definition. We’ve always tried to find some other way to describe our music, but we’ve never actually been that successful at doing so. We’ve played a couple festivals and other shows for that audience before, and we’ve been pretty well received. They kinda focus more on the differences between us and Bill Monroe than the similarities, I guess.”

To the uninitiated, the music this band channels out of Duluth, Minn.—a working class, winter-blasted hamlet on the shores of Lake Superior, which also gave birth to another relatively famous folkie named Bob Dylan—may seem like bluegrass, but it is as much rock as it is folk and traditional. And that blend of styles did not happen by accident.

“All of us had been in rock bands before this band, and all of us grew up with rock music,” Simonett says. “Folk, bluegrass, traditional music…that all came later for all of us. This band started as a side project for three of us that were in other bands, just something on the side. This was about five years ago, and since then the other bands split up and this has become the main gig for everybody.”

As DIY as any punk band worth the tag, Trampled By Turtles have just self-released their fourth album in four years, a pace difficult for most acts to follow. The new record, Duluth, is a stripped-down affair, recorded mostly live in the studio. The band has embarked on the latest of a string of tours that has taken their sweaty live performance to all parts of the country. From greasy roadhouse dive bars to opulent theaters, the band plays every kind of venue imaginable, matching their set and song list as much to the vibe of the room as the attitude of the crowd. With that in mind, Duluth is an excellent testimonial to what one may expect from any live performance. When it comes to genre, however, playing their usual stomping grounds of Minnesota and Wisconsin can be a little different from playing locales in traditional bluegrass strongholds.

“People who are playing this music in our neighborhood are mostly, you know, northerners who have the same kind of background we do,” Simonett says. “That just goes into their music and ends up sounding a lot different than the people from the South who for several generations have just had this music kind of ingrained in them. There’s a lot of traditional stuff going on down there still. It’s beautiful, it’s great, and when we play in the South—which we haven’t been doing for very long—in certain places we get kind of an older crowd, a crowd more steeped in traditional stuff than we would get in most other places.”

Constant touring and a healthy dose of Internet self-promotion aside, the apparent success of their efforts has been a surprise to the band, especially considering the insular nature of the art form.

“Absolutely man, yeah, and I qualify that success,” says Simonett, “because, you know, you’re always at a point as a musician where you’re always looking ahead thinking, ‘This is where I am, but I haven’t made it to where I wanna be yet.’ So as far as success goes, we feel very lucky to be where we are, able to go on tour and, in a lot of places, have some pretty good crowds and a decent audience. Especially compared to where we started from; you know, we started playing to 5–10 people in Duluth, Minn.—and we still do that in certain places around the country—but just to see growth and to see more and more people identify themselves with our music is just great for any musician, and we definitely feel very lucky to be where we are.”

Trampled by Turtles plays The Other Side Thursday, Dec. 4, at 9 PM. $12/$10 advance.
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