Since they started in 2003 in Duluth, Minn., the members of Trampled By Turtles always felt like they didn’t quite fit in the neatly defined boundaries of bluegrass music. The original four members were playing in local rock bands, but had an itch to play acoustic music.
“The four of us who put the band together, that’s me—Dave Simonett on guitar, Dave Carroll the banjo player, and Tim Saxhaug on bass—we all lived in Duluth,” said mandolin player Erik Berry. “We were all musicians jamming together. We met Ryan Young fairly soon thereafter because he was playing fiddle with a different band. He played with us a bunch then joined officially. And then Eamonn McLain has been playing cello with us for a few years.”
The band started after Simonett had his electric guitar and amp stolen from his car, which forced him to focus on his acoustic guitar. The band members all have rock backgrounds, which gives their version of bluegrass an edge that is unusual in the genre.
That quality can be a blessing or a curse. Traditional bluegrass fans are notorious for not appreciating new innovations in their music, but Trampled By Turtles has struck a chord with other acoustic music fans and earned a large following around the world. But Berry remembers some of the early pushback the band received from traditional fans.
“We’ve never really understood it,” said Berry. “We don’t really care. We’ve done just fine. When we started out, we were playing a lot of hippie-scene shows. One of the times that jumps out that I really remember is a bluegrass festival in British Columbia. They had a rule preventing listening to anything but bluegrass music in your car. The band changeovers were only one minute because everyone would share the same mic. At this point, we were using amps. So we said we need a half hour and they said, ‘you’re kidding.’ The audience was mixed. There were people who liked us, and old ladies who kept their sweet spot up front but covered their ears the whole time.”
Trampled By Turtles’ mix of styles has allowed the band to play a wide variety of settings over the years.
“These days, we play lots of different kinds of festivals,” said Berry. “We usually find ourselves being the ‘weird band’ at any festival we play. We’re like the band that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the bill. We’ve played some really electric-oriented festivals where we’re the only acoustic band. We’ve played a nice variety of festivals, which I’m really grateful for. We don’t seem tied to a genre.”
Dave Carroll’s father played banjo and exposed him to a lot of bluegrass and old-time music when he was growing up. The other members of Trampled By Turtles went back and discovered the traditional standard bearers of that music after they began playing together.
“I’ve listened to a lot of Bill Monroe since the band got going,” said Berry. “I felt like I should give myself a good string mandolin foundation. I have no intention of sounding like him. On the other hand, the role I play in the band is really similar to the role he played.”
The band expanded its lineup and sound in 2012, when they added cellist Eamonn McLain as a full-time member. McLain had been brought into the studio to help with recording one track on the “Stars and Satellites” album.
“He fits in really well,” said Berry. “There’s a richness to that sound. There’s a lot more low end than other string bands have. He was a really easy fit when he started playing with us. On our song ‘Alone’ we really wanted a cello part. After a couple attempts, Ryan wasn’t good enough to do it. Eamonn had toured with a band that played with us, so he was a cello player that we knew. It worked out really well and we had him play a few shows.”
After taking a four-year break, Trampled By Turtles released its eighth album last year titled “Life is Good on the Open Road.” The album has a live feel, as the band turned away from modern digital technology and recorded around a single microphone on analog tape. The single “The Middle” has received some airplay on Americana radio.
“Community radio is our friend,” said Berry. “We get played a lot on those types of stations.”
Trampled By Turtles has an upcoming show at Maymont in Richmond. The last time the band played in the city was back in 2012 at a Friday Cheers show on Brown’s Island. The show this month will feature a lot of new songs from “Life is Good on the Open Road” next to old favorites like “Wait So Long” and “Codeine.”