On the Open Road Again

After an 18-month break, Trampled by Turtles are back and big as ever

Trampled by Turtles. From left: Eamonn McLain, Erik Berry, Dave Carroll, Dave Simonett, Tim Saxhaug, and Ryan Young.
From left: Eamonn McLain, Erik Berry, Dave Carroll, Dave Simonett, Tim Saxhaug, and Ryan Young

photo by David McClister

Originally four friends playing tiny basement shows in Duluth, Trampled by Turtles eventually grew to a six-piece that has sold out Colorado’s 10,000-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheatre three times.

Their string-folk songs, such as “Wait So Long” and “Walt Whitman,” that connect to the pulse of northern Minnesota—plus a hard-pickin’ live show to quicken that pulse—are key contributing factors. But the group has also survived 15 years by giving themselves the needed breathing room to thrive artistically, financially, and physically, even if that means an 18-month hiatus between performances. It wasn’t always that way, though.

When the band first started traveling in a tour bus in 2011, they were woefully unprepared. Manager Christian Roreau remembers the initial chaos of belongings strewn everywhere: “The new lighting guy at the time, who was seasoned on the road by that point, pulled me aside and said, ‘You are all living like crazy people.’” Once a literal “junk bunk” for the clutter was established, order was attained.

Beyond helping them tolerate one another for weeks upon weeks on the road, making space has helped the band in a different sense. “If you’re there all the time, no one really knows you’re there,” says Dave Simonett, the band’s lead singer and guitarist. “But when you come back—that’s the important thing.”

He’s referring to six talented musicians not all feeling the need to play on every second of this year’s mix of bluegrass and country-rock, Life Is Good on the Open Road.

Simonett, banjoist Dave Carroll, fiddler Ryan Young, bassist Tim Saxhaug, mandolinist Erik Berry, and cellist Eamonn McLain recorded sitting in a circle at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls in late 2017. Especially on slower songs, such as the new album’s title track and “I’m Not There Anymore,” just one instrument ringing out enhances the dramatic tension of a chilling line like “I can’t tell the dark from the pain.” When voices and instruments do coalesce on upbeat barnstormers like “Kelly’s Bar,” it’s a momentous shift.

The album, their first since 2014’s Wild Animals, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart and is the third chart-topper from a catalog of eight studio albums—plus a live record culled from three rowdy back-to-back-to-back shows at First Avenue. Through these records and blistering gigs, Trampled by Turtles have developed enough of a national following to do Late Show With David Letterman twice and receive regular invites to national festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Austin City Limits.

“The guys onstage are the same dudes,” insists Simonett. “I don’t remember being any less nervous for our first basement show than I was for our first Red Rocks show. [The difference is] if someone’s all of a sudden paying $30 to come and see us, we definitely have to put more thought into presenting a full show with lights and better sound and better gear.”

From 2014 to 2016, the band organized (in collaboration with First Avenue) and headlined the large-scale, outdoor Festival Palomino. Much like Trampled by Turtles, the event’s bookings were often artists lumped into the loosely defined Americana genre, but with an outsider streak—including nationally recognized acts like Father John Misty, the Head and the Heart, and the Arcs. It was held at Shakopee’s Canterbury Park the first two years, and Hall’s Island Park in northeast Minneapolis in 2016.

Will Palomino return? Not this year, Simonett says. “I can’t speak to the future, but this year we were just focused on getting [Life Is Good on the Open Road] done and getting everything back in order. It was a really good time, but I don’t know if that event in particular is going to happen again.”

Not long after 2016’s Festival Palomino, the band announced they were going on hiatus—the first since they started in 2003. “Going away for a little while,” read the tweet on the band’s official Twitter. “We love you all. Thanks for an amazing first chapter.”

While it wasn’t radio silence for the guys—especially since Simonett’s more-amplified side-project Dead Man Winter has some lineup overlap—Trampled by Turtles wasn’t the focus. In early 2017, Dead Man Winter put out Furnace, an exploration of Simonett’s recent divorce. Meanwhile, the rest of the band shifted to different music projects, picked up shows, and spent time with family at their respective homes in northern Minnesota, in the Twin Cities, and, for Carroll, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

It wasn’t a time filled with lots of Skype meetings, Simonett says. “When we’re home, everyone goes and does their own thing, mows their own lawn, so to speak, and then we all come back together.”

When they did reform, their fans were ready. To mark the release of Life Is Good on the Open Road, Trampled by Turtles staged a surprise concert at Duluth’s Pizza Lucé—their first performance in 18 months—just before two sold-out shows at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre in May. They played to thousands at Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park in July, and will visit Moorhead’s Bluestem Amphitheater on August 24. They’ll then hit the Minnesota State Fair’s Grandstand for the first time in five years on August 25.

Alongside records and touring, Trampled by Turtles have managed to balance other business ventures, while staying independent. “It’s a fight to keep up with the big machines and the trends,” says Roreau, who notes that the band sells “a lot” of merchandise. “But everyone involved is scrappy enough to make it work all these years.”

While live performances were dormant in 2017, the band licensed their 2012 song “Alone” for a road-tripping Subaru Crosstrek commercial created by the Minneapolis creative agency Carmichael Lynch.

“When I was a kid, and a band had a song on a commercial, they were considered a sell-out,” Simonett admits. “They weren’t legit anymore. Now, it’s a completely commonplace and acceptable way to supplement your income in music. I’ve still had a hard time adjusting.”

While it’s not a perfect science, Roreau says the band aims to work with sustainable, eco-conscious, and ethical partners. This includes teaming with Duluth-based brewery Bent Paddle for the Trampled American Golden Ale beer, which was served at July’s Bayfront Park gig.

“You can learn a lot about the brewers by the music they listen to,” says Laura Mullen, Bent Paddle’s co-founder and vice president of marketing and outreach. “And we’re a Trampled-listening brewery,”

“I drink Bent Paddle beer myself,” says Simonett. “It works for both of us, I guess.”

However, he continues: “I’m not much of a business-minded person. I shy away from making any creative decisions based on money.” The band might not have survived without their manager, he says. With their hands freed up, they can focus on what has been a priority from the start: “We own all of our records, we put them out whenever we feel like it, and tour when and where we want.”