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Trampled by Turtles: Not exactly bluegrass

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoMinnesota acoustic quintet Trampled by Turtles performs Friday at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN ” Fiddle? Check. Mandolin? Yep. Guitar? You betcha. And that guitar isn’t one of them newfangled electrified ones, is it? No, sir! And most important ” banjo? Oh yeah.

Yes, Trampled by Turtles has all the instruments to call itself a bluegrass band. Still, they hesitate to do so.

“I shy away from the bluegrass label because of what it implies,” said Dave Simonett, the Minnesota quintet’s guitarist and principal singer and songwriter. “There’s a big community of traditional bluegrass musicians, and we don’t really fit in with the traditional bluegrass world. If you’re someone who knows a lot about bluegrass music, you probably wouldn’t call us a bluegrass band.”



By Simonett’s reckoning, the only member of the band that can rightly call himself a bluegrass player is banjoist Dave Carroll. “He came from a family of bluegrass players, and he’s been playing bluegrass since he was young,” said Simonett.

The rest of the group ” mandolinist Erik Berry, bassist Tim Saxhaug and the most recent addition, fiddler Ryan Young, as well as the 29-year-old Simonett ” entered the bluegrass realm through the back door. All were playing in electric rock bands, and knew one another from the Duluth music scene. As noted on the band’s website, “If you play in a band in Duluth, Minn., you’re bound to start another band with people from other bands in Duluth.” For variety’s sake, the side project that was formed early in 2003 featured the players on acoustic instruments.




It is another rule of young rock bands that, like start-up restaurants, most of them won’t exist a year after being launched. Sure enough, in time, the only band left standing was the side project.

“Those other bands fell away. This one was left behind, and we stuck with this one,” said the 29-year-old Simonett, while driving through Glenwood Canyon on the way from Salt Lake City to Boulder. (The band plays tonight at Belly Up, with another Minnesota group, the folk-leaning Johnson Family Band, opening.) Simonett says that abandoning electric rock was not simply a fallback position. “It was both conscious and happy,” he said of the decision.

It also seems to have been a wise decision. After two years as a local band, and the release of their debut album, “Songs From a Ghost Town,” Trampled by Turtles road-tested themselves. They passed: The band has appeared at such festivals as Rothbury, Wakarusa, and their home-state 10,000 Lakes, and opened for Cracker, Billy Joe Shaver and Camper Van Beethoven. The Onion opined that “they are, simply put, perhaps the best live band in the state.” (It should be noted that the Onion does not use its music pages for satirical content.)

Late last year came Trampled by Turtles crowning achievement to date, “Duluth.” The studio album puts the band alongside such acts as Old Crow Medicine Show, which uses bluegrass instruments, and more than a passing knowledge of bluegrass themes and sounds, to create acoustic music that employs acoustic sounds and rock energy.

Even the pickiest traditionalist might like it. Even if they won’t call it bluegrass.

stewart@aspentimes.com