The string quintet out of Duluth, Minn., might draw on fiddle, mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar and bass to crank out high-energy jams, but, as frontman Dave Simonett observes, the definition of bluegrass is too constricting for its own good.
The term’s narrow scope is partly why the Midwestern musicians settled on their name. “We wanted anything that wasn’t bluegrassy in nature, like a name with mountain, river or ‘the something, something boys.’ We have never called ourselves a bluegrass band,” he said.
Formed in 2004, Trampled By Turtles takes its cues from folk, country and Americana greats Townes Van Zant, Bob Dylan and Wilco, but many fans are surprised to hear strains of punk rock, heavy metal and gangster rap in their sound. Progressive for stringed music, Trampled brings that raw, rip-roarin’ energy to its shows, playing like the band members are fully plugged in. Smaller shows are often their favorite because of the intimate relationship with the crowd.
When seeing a Trampled concert, it’s not uncommon to hear exclamations like, “Those boys sure play fast for sittin’ down like that.” While they’ve tried to play acoustic music standing up, they say it’s easier to play fast while sitting. That iconic image of the band lined up on five chairs made its way onto T-shirts after a fan-based design competition in 2009.
While known largely for live performances, Trampled are turning heads with their recordings; they released Palomino on April 13. Except for several vocal harmonies, the songs were mostly recorded live. “Feet and Bones” and “It’s a War” have the fury and organized chaos of pugnacious country-punk, yet the band shows off its diversity with minimalistic and even jammy tracks.
The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart. Mandolin player Erik Barry says hitting the top of the chart was a bolt from the blue. “A lot of hard work was put into that record, but, at the end of the day, I just play the mandolin,” said Barry. When the publicist called to inform the band they were chart-toppers, Barry didn’t know what to do. “You’d think there’d be high-fives and hugs, but it was just like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome!’ then on to the next thing. What else can you do?” Barry said.
On a more basic level, the success of Palomino facilitates more gigs, more ticket sales—almost doubling in the Southeast, along with sold-out shows in Northeast and the West, where they are more established—and less stress. Now, Barry says he no longer has to work his second job as a line cook. Still, he and his bandmates might be the hardest working men in bluegrass, er, “not bluegrass.” Just before his City Weekly interview, Barry built a duck coop for the poultry farm he and his wife are starting at their Minnesota home.
Trampled also has many musical offshoots, like Barry piecing together a dozen tunes for an album consisting mainly of fiddle arrangements for solo mandolin, possibly including several Black Sabbath songs. Singer/guitarist Simonett has recorded an EP with Dead Man Winter, a straight-up rock band, recently touring the Midwest. Finally, banjo player Dave Carroll leads the band Two Many Banjos, who just released full-length album, POW, in June.
Recording songs is great and all, but it’s not Barry’s No. 1 priority: “I come from focusing on the show as what’s happening. The next show is what I’m most excited about, and I’m thinking about the last show—what worked and what didn’t.”