Minnesota's Trampled by Turtles play traditional music in a nontraditional way. Since the band moved from side project to full-time gig in 2003, its five records have split the difference between revved-up bluegrass and Townes Van Zandt-style ballads.
The recently released Palomino debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's bluegrass chart. But the Turtles made their bones onstage, where the five members are the hardest-working band to ever stay seated. According to singer-guitarist Dave Simonett, their caught-between-worlds style makes them stand out when they play certain venues.
"We've [played] several very traditional bluegrass festivals, and I don't really know how to explain that world," he says. "A lot of the traditional bluegrass world is really set in its ways, and it has got to be four guys in suits standing around one microphone, hollering out the same Bill Monroe songs. That's a big generalization, but there is a lot of that attitude — like any variance from that might be fine, but it's definitely not bluegrass."
Needless to say, the band polarizes audiences. Some people want to hear them, some don't, says Simonett. "Even Bill Monroe [got tired] of people directly copying what he had done," he says. "[He believed] that you should take this thing and make it your own."
Trampled by Turtles started as a way for Simonett and some pals to explore acoustic music as a side outlet from the rock bands they played in around their hometown of Duluth. The original trio — Simonett, banjo player Erik Berry, and mandolin player Dave Carroll — had never performed in a string band before, says Simonett, "so it was very recreational, just playing in living rooms and a couple of shows here and there."
After their rock bands eventually ran their course, everyone started to get serious about the side project. "It was just something different to do," says Simonett. "We'd been playing electric guitars for a while, and going into more of a bluegrass form was kind of happenstance. Erik played mandolin a little bit, and Dave was playing banjo, so it just naturally went in that direction."
Over the past seven years, Trampled by Turtles have built their following the old-fashioned way: by self-releasing their first four albums and touring constantly. The slow-and-steady approach has paid off in some unexpected success — like the chart-topping album and a star at Minneapolis' famed First Avenue club, a 1,600-seat venue they've consistently sold out.
"When something like [this] happens, it feels great," says Simonett. "I look at somebody like Justin Bieber, or somebody that comes out of the gate as a star, and I think the perspective would be so different. I don't know if I appreciate more than a big rock star or not, but it feels like a steady progression — like we worked from nothing to [get to] the point we're at now."
Simonett retains a healthy perspective on all this, even as Trampled by Turtles get more respect and fans. "It has been quite a year, and we feel really grateful for it," he says. "We feel really lucky and almost undeserving to have all this attention on us right now. When we started this band, it was really just for kicks. It still is for kicks, but there's a lot more to it now. Every new experience is pretty awesome for us."
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