Back in the early spring of 2003, on April 4th to be exact, a trio of musicians took the tiny stage at Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake in Duluth, Minnesota. What was meant as a casual gathering of friends to shoo away the cold weather blues — with guitar, mandolin, banjo, and their voices — evolved into a live act for the ages: Nearly two decades later, Trampled by Turtles have released their ninth studio album, Alpenglow.
“Sir Benedict’s is this sandwich shop that I worked at, with a stage about the size of a coffee table,” says Dave Simonett, Trampled by Turtles’ lead singer/guitarist, sitting backstage at October’s Rebels & Renegades Music Festival in Monterey, California. “Every April 4th, I think about that day, and how the fact we’re still playing music together is like winning the lottery. It really would have been unfathomable at that time.”
At Rebels & Renegades, Trampled by Turtles were a headlining act, playing their brand of bluegrass, folk, and indie-rock — best described as “Midwestern Gothic” — to an exuberant crowd. Geographically and economically, Duluth is a long way from Monterey and the humble beginnings of the group. Before that pivotal show at Sir Benedict’s, Simonett and mandolinist Erik Berry were eking out an existence as a duo. Banjo player Dave Carroll joined them for the April 4th show, and bassist Tim Saxhaug came aboard soon after. Today, fiddle player Ryan Young and cellist Eamonn McLain round out TBT.
“There’s always been this sense in our band that if you put your heads down and focus on doing it the best that you can — playing the shows the best that you can, playing your instruments the best that you can,” Berry says, “then good things will come from that.”
This time, that good result is Alpenglow, a record that pairs Trampled by Turtles with Jeff Tweedy as producer. The Wilco frontman took the band under his creative wing, setting up the ensemble at Wilco’s legendary studio and gear storage facility in Chicago, the Loft, to write and record what became Alpenglow.
“We walked in and were thrown right into the deep end, with Jeff having specific ideas for notes he’d like you to play on a certain song,” says Berry, “which is a hundred percent what I was hoping for.”
“We’d never worked with Jeff before, never recorded in an urban setting, so there was a lot of new things for us,” Simonett adds. “I found inspiration in witnessing Jeff’s work ethic, and just how much the guy works on his craft. [Wilco] make cool art the way they want to make it, whenever they want to make it. And they have a blast with each other, they love and respect each other. Every band should aspire to that.”
In fact, Tweedy contributed a song to the album. “A Lifetime to Find,” with its gentle melody and yearning lyric about how “it takes a lifetime to find / A life like the life you had in mind,” is an Alpenglow standout. It found its way onto Wilco’s latest album Cruel Country too.
“That line in ‘A Lifetime to Find,’ I think that probably has to do with the peace [Jeff] never had as a younger guy, you know?” Simonett says. “And I feel that way about our band now, where I, honestly, enjoy [being in this band] more than any moment I ever have before. For me, that’s success in and of itself.”
While Wilco broke new ground for rock and country music in its own ways and means, Trampled is clearing new trails for acoustic and roots acts, redefining the sonics of the string-music world. According to Berry, their goal has always been to be the “weirdest band at the festival.”
“We’ve done what we’ve wanted, but that’s also included wanting to work,” Berry says. “It’s about staying true to yourself, and just keep focusing forward, not placating to the bluegrass or Americana worlds.”
Alongside Trampled, juggernaut artists like Billy Strings, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Infamous Stringdusters are each selling out large venues and headlining major festivals, with advanced lighting rigs and state-of-the-art production behind them. It’s a brave new look for string music, which some argue is becoming the new rock & roll.
“We’re still trying to find those nooks and crannies where we haven’t been — as long as you’re still looking for that magic, you’re going to be alright,” Simonett says, wandering out of the green room tent to spend a few minutes before showtime messing around on walkie-talkies with his two children.
Next spring will mark 20 years since Trampled by Turtles came together on that otherwise quiet night in Duluth. Looking back, Simonett, now 42, says that even before he bought his first guitar as a teenager, he was on the path.
“A lot of us have the opportunity laid out in front of us to do something, whatever we want with our lives. And bit by bit, it’s oftentimes pulled away from people [as they get older],” he says. “There’s a lot of forces telling you to do something besides what you really want to do. One of the great freedoms is to ignore that.”