Burrowed halfway between Minneapolis and Canada’s Thunder Bay, along Minnesota’s corner of Lake Superior, Duluth is a small city surrounded by forests, hills, streams and lakes. Considering the population is only 90,000, an annual weeklong music festival with 150 local bands may seem out of the ordinary.
Yet the “Homegrown Festival” is symbolic of just how musically diverse the birthplace of Bob Dylan is.
“Per capita, there has to be more bands there than anywhere that I know of,” said Ryan Young, fiddler for alt-country/bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles, who play Thursday at the Great American Music Hall (9pm, $21). “Everybody knows each other, and there are quite a lot of people that are in more than one band.”
Take Young’s band, for instance. The fiddler previously played guitar in a speed metal band, various rock and jazz bands and even a hip hop troupe. The other members of the all-acoustic band – guitarist/vocalist Dave Simonett, bassist Tim Saxhaug, mandolin player Erik Berry and banjo player Dave Carroll all played in traditional electric rock and jam bands.
Simonett built the quintet over the course of several months in 2003, plucking each of his band mates from other bands; Trampled by Turtles was supposed to be a side-project, and it was never the goal to create an Americana band. “It just kind of happened; it wasn’t premeditated,” Young said. “It was acoustic guitar, a mandolin and a banjo. That kind of just lends it self to bluegrassy, folky music.”
One by one, the musicians’ other bands fell by the wayside. Five albums in, it’s safe to say Trampled by Turtles is a side project no more. Their most recent release, 2010’s Palomino (Banjodad/Thirty Tigers), spent more than 50 consecutive weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard bluegrass chart.
But Trampled by Turtles don’t play your grandparents’ brand of bluegrass. The frenetic, fast-tempo and raucous melodies owe just as much to Young’s days in the metal band as traditional country and folk. A ballad here or there notwithstanding, most Palomino tracks start at warp speed and only build from there.
Young’s lightening-quick fiddle-work electrifies already spirited tunes such as “Wait So Long,” about a man frustrated with a relationship stuck in “friend mode”; and the open-to-interpretation “It’s a War.” Some have begun to refer to the band’s mashed-up genre as speedgrass.
“It is obviously influenced by metal, but it wasn’t preconceived like that,” Young said. “It just kind of came out. Typically, we’ll just say we’re a nontraditional bluegrass band. It is difficult to pin it down to exactly what it is.”
On the slower songs, such as “Again,” a deconstruction of a crumbling relationship, Simmonett’s songwriting ability shines brighter. The singer draws from inspirations Townes Van Zant, Ralph Stanley and hometown hero Bob Dylan – among others. “You could probably hear (Dylan) if you listen close,” Young said. “It’s in our chord progressions and in our words. He’s a genius. You listen to him for a few minutes, and it’s hard not to be influenced.”
Riding the wave of Americana revival headed up by bands such as Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles are now beginning to branch out into a new frontier. Two weeks ago, the band released a split 7-inch single with rockers and fellow Minnesota natives Motion City Soundtrack. They covered the rock band’s “Disappear,” while Motion City Soundtrack released their take on “Wait So Long.”
Young, Simmonett and Saxhaug have also come full-circle, starting Dead Man Winter, an electric side-project to Trampled by Turtles. Simmonett had written more songs that were better suited for a rock band and didn’t want to let them linger.
Dead Man Winter is also a departure from the nontraditional bluegrass band’s hard-charging ways. “In general, our rock band is more chilled out than our acoustic band,” Young said.
Follow writer Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.