Though it didn’t emerge as a distinct style until after World War II, it might be tempting to think that bluegrass is a dead musical form, just a vestigial leftover in the body of American music. It’s associated with old southern sensibilities, with hillbillies and dancing, Appalachia, and Protestant religions. In its modern form, most listeners probably know bluegrass as the music from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where it was treated variously as kitschy, cute, sentimental, and inscrutable. Bluegrass is thus shelved alongside other quaint musical forms, none of which are capable of speaking seriously to modern listeners.
Or so it seems.
On the other hand, there are bands like Duluth, Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles. Since 2003, this quintet has produced a distinctive kind of bluegrass that draws equally from the manners of Neil Young, Bill Monroe, and the Meat Puppets. On Palomino, released in 2010 by BanjoDad Records, their sound is frequently aggressive, their lyrics smart, and their virtuosity closer to the aesthetics of punk and heavy metal than dance music. For every sweetly played violin and itinerant banjo, there are waves of syncopated rhythms, bellicose strings, and half-yelled lyrics. Instead of mining bluegrass’ most nostalgic deposits, Trampled by Turtles infuse the style with the elements that helped formed it. There are hints of jazz, blues, and country littered throughout the record, but there’s something new in the mix, too.
It can be heard in the band’s rhythm section as well as in the violin and mandolin solos. Tim Saxhaug’s bass doesn’t keep time so much as pushes it, and Dave Simonett doesn’t strum his guitar; he attacks it, hoping to beat it to the next note. Most of the time, their rush to complete a song is held together by cleanly played solos, but in several places the band goes full tilt and pushes their acoustic instruments into electric territory.
That ability to turn one sound into another defines Palomino from its opening salvos to its closing moments. On “Wait So Long,” the album’s first song, Trampled by Turtles establish speed as their ally. They use it to test themselves and to impress their audience, but more importantly, they use it to blur their influences together. Speed turns their saccharine bluegrass ditties into furious exorcisms, and transforms their cinematic soundtracks into ecstatic displays of skill and endurance. Coincidentally, it provides contrast for their ballads and slower songs, too, which make up about half the record. Speed might not be the Turtles’ only trick, but it’s one they utilize well. Without it, many of their songs wouldn’t have the same edge.
Whether blazing through a battery of notes or singing a sad song, Dave Simonett brings plenty of thoughtful lyrics to the proceedings. Palomino doesn’t read like a conceptual record, but Dave’s words are fraught with references to war, dreams, and reality, all of which feel entirely relevant here and now. Perhaps that’s because there is something universal about those topics, but it might also be because Trampled by Turtles are making relevant and modern music, despite the traditional branding.