I discovered Trampled by Turtles in the classic way one usually expects to come across a bluegrass band: perusing the character-specific curated playlists that some corporate marketer at Star Wars released on Spotify to promote their new film, Rogue One. Trampled by Turtles had been making music long before that, though. The band just released their 8th album, Life is Good on the Open Road, after an almost two year long hiatus that saw several band members (including frontman Dave Simonett) embarking on side projects like Dead Man Winter.
Time away from the studio and each other did not dull the band’s potency, however. Over a decade into their careers, they’re as strong as ever, releasing what is arguably one of the best bluegrass albums thus far in 2018.
Trampled by Turtles last album, Wild Animals, released in 2016, was atmospheric folk in the vein of Fleet Foxes. Life is Good on the Open Road has the band returning to their more traditional roots, diving right in with the fast paced “Kelly’s Bar,” the kind of song that will get audiences stomping their feet and clapping their hands. Lyrically, it’s an interesting song. Considering that Trampled by Turtles had been on a two year hiatus, lines like “And maybe you’re not where you thought you would be” set against the backdrop of a man who finds himself back home (stationary, in a local bar along train tracks, listening to the trains whiz by but never taking one himself) feels almost autobiographical. The second song on the album, “We All Get Lonely,” then acts as the coming down of the good time described in “Kelly’s Bar.”
“Started out a big, bright city, now it’s a small town, everyone you never wanted to run into again, is sitting at this bar next to each other,” Simonett croons.
“The Middle,” the third song on the album, is where Life is Good on the Open Road seems to really settle into itself. It’s a bittersweet sounding song, both lyrically and musically, with some beautiful string work by Ryan Young on fiddle and Eamonn McLain on cello. The backing blend of banjo and mandolin add depth to Simonett’s vocals – harmonized gorgeously, as they often are, by the other members of the band.
“Thank You, John Steinbeck” ambles through an homage to classic motifs of folk songs past like a modern day Woody Gutherie tune. It’s the lone traveler out to find America, complete with a reference to Steinbeck’s Travel’s With Charley, a book exactly about that. It’s slightly cliched, but one of my favorite songs on album despite it. Erik Berry’s mandolin playing, for me, is the standout, playing sweetly off the strings.
The album picks up again with “Annihilate,” a fun, fast paced song that gallops along with Dave Carroll’s impressive banjo picking, leading into another toe-tapper, “Right Back Where We Started.” The latter once again touches on the album’s traveling theme, as well as the question of trying to figure out where one belongs that Simonett seems to be working though on this album.
“Life is Good on the Open Road” is worthy of being the title track, playing off the strengths of Trampled by Turtles’ harmonies and their beautiful arrangements. “The light inside you comes and goes, but it never really goes out,” Simonett opines of the open road, instilling hope in the listener that there are only good things to come from this band in the future. And indeed, the song that follows, “Blood in the Water,” is a rowdy good time; you can tell that Trampled by Turtles had fun recording this one. Raw and raucous, it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser at live shows.
“I Went to Hollywood” has the band again harkening back to the motif of travel as self-discovery with lines like “I cut my teeth in the Middle West but I was born to ramble, hit the brakes and I pull to the left, and every day is a battle.” The song should feel a little cliched, a bluegrass/folk band talking about the disappointments of the “big city,” but Trampled by Turtles gets away with it by being delightfully authentic in their brand of alternative meets bluegrass.
The album ends with two slowed down songs cut in half by a pretty instrumental. “I’m Not There Anymore” stands out with dulcet mandolin tones and harmonized vocals that are like honey to the listener’s ears. Finally, “I Learn the Hard Way” has Simonett leaving the city that he’s danced around for most of the album, leaving the listener with a sense that this band is in a better place than when they started recording this album, fresh off their shaky hiatus. All in all, Life is Good on the Open Road is a welcome return for Trampled by Turtles. Fourteen years after their debut, they haven’t lost their spark.