Outside of the Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles has been the most successful progressive bluegrass band of the last fifteen years, with each of their previous eight albums charting higher than the last, and attracting a massive, rabid fan base. So, imagine the collective howls of angst when the Minnesota-based band announced in 2016 that they were going on hiatus. Burned out from the road and in the midst of a divorce, frontman and wordsmith Dave Simonett holed up at a remote cabin in the frigid Minnesota woods to work on Furnace, a raw, unflinching dissection of his disintegrating marriage, under his side project, Dead Man Winter. That catharsis reinvigorated him and last October, TBT reunited to crack a few beers, watch baseball, and play music together, planting the seeds that would become their first album in four years, Life Is Good On the Open Road, which you can stream now below before it’s out on May 4. Opening with the fierce, warp-speed “We’re back” statement of “Kelly’s Bar,” the album’s twelve songs showcase the best of TBT: raucous, giddy, and introspective, all underpinned by world-class musical chops. “Taking a break probably saved our band,” Simonett says. We’re glad it did.
Was there ever a point where you thought you guys wouldn’t get back together? You went through some pretty heavy stuff.
Initially, it did feel like that. Fortunately, I have some more responsible people around me trying to talk me back from that, which I’m thankful for. Then we all met up to just talk about stuff, and we decided that this is something that we’ve done for a long time and it’s still good for us.
Do you think the Furnace album and what you were going through personally had an effect on how you viewed the band?
It was more that I wanted to have a life-restart, if that makes sense—just wipe the slate clean. And I moved to a different town for a little bit, had this new band. And then, finally, I just calmed down. At some point, you’ve got to look around and find the things that are still good and don’t destroy them, for God’s sake. It was enough to shake me back into really appreciating what I already have.
The new album has a looseness that recalls your earliest stuff.
When we made it, we just wanted it to be very simple and sit in a circle and play songs—try to capture the feeling of us playing in a room together. And it’s a simple-sounding thing, but it’s not the easiest thing to get in a studio, at least for us, because the feeling in a room is such an important part of what comes out of people. So, when we’re in a formal environment, we wanted to try to sound as informal as possible.
Duluth, Minnesota, where you started out, doesn’t strike me as a hotbed of bluegrass.
We were all playing in rock bands and we just wanted to try this bluegrass music that we’d never heard before. I had just bought Bill Monroe’s greatest hits album at this old used record store in town and I hadn’t listened to that music. It wasn’t part of my culture where I lived or my family, so I was fascinated by it. I didn’t even own an acoustic guitar at the time, but the energy of it blew me away. It felt honest, so it was like, ‘Let’s try it, let’s just explore this music, and I want to see if we can play like this and just for kicks.’
The traditional bluegrass community is notoriously resistant to change. Did you have any idea with those first few records about the disdain that some people can have for anyone trying to expand on the sound?
Oh, yeah. We definitely got that. It was thrown in our faces a bit, but that’s really a good driving force, though. We almost feel like we’re doing something right if that’s happening. We never believe in any kind of rules in music genres. Those things are all made by people who don’t make art. They want something to be the same all the time. We’re not trying to be a real bluegrass band. We never have. We never made a claim that we grew up in Kentucky. That’s not our thing. But the instruments that we’re using, that’s what they used, so maybe that’s why that criticism has come at us our entire career, but it’s never really made a dent.
Well, even bands like the Avett Brothers cut their teeth playing punk rock shows at house parties.
One of our first shows was in a basement. I had a sewer pipe dripping on my guitar. Playing in Duluth, Minnesota, at the time in which we started, there just weren’t enough bands to have cliques of genre. There were a couple of punk rock bands and a hip-hop act and a few garage-rocky kind of bands. And we were all friends and we all played in each other’s bands. There wasn’t really a bluegrass or a folk scene, so we just all played together at every show. That’s a lesson that I’ve really taken with me—that people can like more than one style of music.
You mentioned earlier that it’s hard to find space for yourself on tour. But I’ve noticed, starting in early May, you basically are running through the rest of the year.
[Laughs] It’s coming.
So, does each band member get their own bus this time around?
That’s a little out of our budget [laughs]. But we’re better at taking time for ourselves. The shows, even now, make me anxious. Getting up on stage is still uncomfortable to me. [Being on tour] is an emotional roller coaster, man. You have all day trying to fill your time with stuff and then there’s this hour and a half that’s this crazy adrenaline rush, and then it’s over and you’ve got to sleep. So that’s why I need to get out and find a river to walk around.
Listen to Life Is Good On the Open Road below and check out the band’s tour dates here.