Trampled by Turtles carrying bluegrass banner down a new path
Photograph by: Zoran Orliá
It’s not the sort of thing you would expect to hear from Ryan Young, the bearded fiddler of folky, bluegrass revivalists Trampled By Turtles.
But bluegrass, it turns out, was not a part of his musical DNA. In fact, as a young music fan, he disliked it greatly.
“Honestly, I thought it was dumb when I was a kid,” says Young, on the line from a tour stop in Washington, D.C. “I thought it was hokey and something that rednecks listened to. It just wasn’t my scene at all. I grew up on punk rock music and rock and roll and, a little bit later on, jazz music. With bluegrass, I hadn’t heard anything that piqued my interest. But I hadn’t been exposed to anything good, that’s why.”
For Young, there is a major distinction between good and bad bluegrass music. In fact, one gets the impression that he probably doesn’t like the “bluegrass revivalist” tag at all. He will grudgingly admit that Trampled by Turtles may be part of a revival movement and may act as a gateway of sorts for younger fans eager to discover the old-timey music that Young now admires, whether it be Doc Watson, The Country Gentleman or the Louvin Brothers.
But if Trampled by Turtles have become torchbearers for an older sound, it was certainly not a calculated career move for the Duluth, Minn., quintet, Young says.
“Trampled by Turtles have been around for 11 years and we just happened to be lucky to be in this thing that is happening, or be included in this sub-genre of music that is having a resurgence right now,” he says. “We just kind of lucked out that way.”
Young and his bandmates, who will be playing the main stage of the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Thursday, offer drum-free sets featuring guitar, bass, mandolin, violin, banjo and harmonica. Perhaps it was that early affinity for punk, but despite using acoustic instruments, Trampled by Turtles have earned a reputation for explosive and energetic live performances. So some reviewers appraising the band’s seventh studio album, Wild Animals, have raised the alarm that the record seems to feature an abundance of slower material.
Young dismisses the concerns, suggesting the ballad-to-barnburner ratio on Wild Animals is similar to past efforts. It only seems mellow because it is front-loaded with slower material, he says. What did change this time around was the presence of an outside producer. That would be Alan Sparhawk, a fellow Minnesotan and leader of the ethereal trio, Low. It was the first time the act didn’t produce their own material and the first time Sparhawk has produced a band other than his own.
In the dead of a particularly frigid winter, the boys holed up in rural Minnesota’s iconic Pachyderm Studio, where classics such as the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall and Nirvana’s In Utero were recorded. They found Sparhawk to be a benevolent, but persistent, taskmaster.
“He did an amazing job,” Young said. “Maybe because he hadn’t produced anything before, he kind of went above and beyond the call of duty and he worked his butt off and did a really, really good job. He made us perform much better than we would have without him.
“Typically what would happen, if we were recording an album by ourselves and producing it ourselves, as we’ve done with every other record, we’d record two or three takes of a tune and take the best one. That would be it. For this one, we’d do two or three and about the time we would have normally called it quits and good enough, he’d be like, ‘I want you to try it again . . .’ and he would come up with an idea.
“Nine times out of 10, it was a great idea and we would get all energized and pumped about trying something a different way or thinking about it in a different way.”
The resulting album does seem to lean more heavily toward atmospheric, creeping folk than fleet-fingered bluegrass. But the band’s hallmarks — understated virtuosity, impeccable harmonies and emotive songwriting — are still intact, particularly on powerfully brooding numbers such as the title track, and Ghosts.
But Young says there was no real intent by the group to shake up their sound, suggesting it’s the band members’ far-flung influences that shape the material even if they are not always overt in the finished product.
“There’s punk influences, there’s metal, there’s hip-hop influences,” he says. “You won’t hear us rapping or hear electronic beats on it, but we listened to that when we were kids. So, it’s going to show up in some subtle way, maybe not something that is completely obvious. But all of these genres influenced us and made us what we are. Maybe that’s what makes us Trampled by Turtles rather than your average, bluegrass clone band, where they sound like Bill Monroe did in the 1960s.”
Trampled by Turtles play the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Visit Calgaryfolkfest.com