- A.E. Landes Photography
Many bands have origin stories that become lore, whether that's how the name of the band came about or some weird twist of fate that gave it its first big break. For Minnesota bluegrass songsters Trampled by Turtles, the band's story starts with frontman Dave Simonett getting most of his musical equipment, including amps and electric guitar, stolen out of his car.
With only an acoustic guitar, Simonett was inclined to play a type of music that didn't require amplification, leading him to form Trampled by Turtles with banjo player Dave Carroll, bassist Tim Saxhaug and mandolin player Erik Berry. Despite all four having mostly rock 'n' roll backgrounds—and already playing in other bands—the four dove into playing bluegrass in their hometown of Duluth, Minnesota.
The origin of the band's name, however, is less of a saga than its rough beginnings.
"Since we were bluegrass, we really just didn't want any typical tropes like 'mountain,' 'grass,' 'strings,' 'river,' 'boys,' or 'valley' in the name," band bassist Saxhaug told Boise Weekly. "Eric [Barry] brought up 'Trampled by Turtles' as a goofy one to make the others seem more palatable so...we picked it."
The band plays at the Knitting Factory in Boise on Monday, July 22. The four have performed together since 2003, releasing nine albums over the last 16 years. Members credit songwriting legends like Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan as sources of inspiration.
Trampled by Turtles has made the rounds at popular music festivals such as Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Austin City Limits, as well as television appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman.
The band is now a six-piece, adding members Ryan Young on fiddle and Eamonn McLain on cello.
Its most recent album, Life is Good on the Open Road (2018), was a reunion for the band after taking a year and a half hiatus. Saxhaug said that the time off gave all the members some perspective on the band and what direction it should take.
To work on songs for their new album, the band gathered at a cabin in Grand Rapids in northern Minnesota.
"It was the first time we had all been in a room together in over a year," Saxhaug said. "It was amazing how natural it felt. Our last album, Wild Animals, had a lot of production and experimenting and whatnot. This was just a return to our beginning form, it was nice to have that."
Trampled by Turtles has certainly earned the right to get back to basics. Over the course of the band's long career, it has explored different avenues of bluegrass and leaning more or less at various points on rock 'n' roll, folk and contemporary sound. Three of those albums have reached U.S. Billboard chart number one spots; its fifth album, Palomino, stayed in the Top 10 on the bluegrass charts for 52 straight weeks.
Adding two members since the band formed has also had an impact on its sound.
"Dave was just starting as a songwriter when we released our first album and I think you can really hear his progress," Saxhaug says of how Trampled by Turtles' sound evolved since the beginning. "As you get more comfortable playing with each other, it sort of solidifies. If you listen to the first album and the current one, you can definitely hear the difference."
Despite the popularity the band has achieved and a busy life of recording and touring, Trampled by Turtles just played its semi-annual show in Duluth at Bayfront Festival Park on July 6 to about 10,000 people.
"This one in particular was one of our favorite shows we've done there," Saxhaug said. "Getting to play in our hometown was a big thrill. Our Duluth shows are a high point of the year."
The band plans to continue touring and promoting Life is Good on the Open Road, but Saxhaug anticipates getting back into the studio in the fall.
With the band back together and refocused on the basics, one can expect a callback to the early sounds of Trampled by Turtles.