Back in 2005, Trampled by Turtles was a Minnesota bluegrass band fresh off the release of its second studio album, Blue Sky and the Devil. Even if you were tapped into the Midwestern bluegrass scene back in the mid-aughts, you might’ve just known the five-piece band for its weirdly poetic name, slightly profound and mostly silly. Unless you saw them live, you probably weren’t aware of fan favorites like “Codeine,” Trampled’s bitter ode to hard drug use, and “Burn for Free,” an exercise in violent despair through driving bass. They were very proficient musically, but not spectacular, so those angst-filled songs carried added power over their tamer tracks. Unfortunately for the young band, none of the live performance energy made its way onto Blue Sky, so Trampled developed a devoted following in its home state and little elsewhere.
That’s no sob story for a bluegrass band nowadays; the genre isn’t exactly dominating Top 40 stations. Trampled kept working, putting out two more albums before Palomino in 2010. It starts with ten seconds of instruments tuning, the hum of warming strings, then “Wait So Long” begins. The fiddle creates potential energy with long, gorgeous strokes, and Trampled just flies in a flurry of bass and banjo and mandolin and guitar. The song is all relentless drive; even through mediocre speakers, it’s music you can mosh to. Palomino topped the bluegrass charts, but Trampled gained some crossover appeal with that offering, also making the indie and Heatseeker charts (for up-and-coming bands, even ones with five records).
To put it bluntly, “Wait So Long” and Palomino were only possible because Trampled by Turtles got a lot better at making its own music. Dave Carroll, Erik Berry, and Ryan Young mastered the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, respectively. What they do on Palomino is fine musicianship, instrumentation overlying emotion. The band is capable of much more nuanced feats of performance, getting across the simmering resent of “Gasoline” and the post-mourning emptiness of “Bloodshot Eyes.” At this point in its development, it had the confidence and the will to play with breathless speed, but this only works because the members care enough about their craft to nail the slow songs, too.
The first Trampled album I heard was the latest, Stars and Satellites. When I worked backwards to Palomino, the power of “Wait So Long” still blew me away, but it was by no means revelatory. Because I had heard the band’s later release first, I never questioned the musicians’ ability to pull off something like that. I had no investment in Trampled’s progression, so I could only appreciate the song and not what it meant for the group.
“Wait So Long” became the lone single off Live at First Avenue, Trampled by Turtles’ first live album. It is also the album’s worst song, starting without a build and carrying more strength than the band does; it is so explicitly a tour de force that the live cut fails to live up to expectations. “Wait So Long” plays, and the band goes along for the ride.
Rather, the album’s greatest successes are its two oldest tracks: “Codeine” and “Burn for Free.” I had listened to Blue Sky and found older live bootlegs of those classics, but the members are drastically different performing in 2013. They sound as though they are cuts off Palomino or Stars, so much stronger in more capable hands.
But they still retained their unpolished grit, a remnant from the days when no one outside the greater Duluth area had heard of Trampled by Turtles. The word “triumph” usually means nothing when used to describe art, but the five men play these songs like winners. They play like Trampled by Turtles is exactly the band they dreamed it could be, and the effect is magnetic.
Regardless of what type of music you’re into, you can relate to that draw, the sensation that you can hear the heart and the hours of work that brought the band to perfect its own music. The emotional connection is key; tactical greatness alone cannot forge that bond. U2 made it when Bono leapt into the crowd to dance at Live Aid. So did Nirvana when it tapped into the zeitgeist with Nevermind. We’ll look back on 2013 as the year Kendrick Lamar reached that level, too. Because of its chosen style of music, Trampled will never be as culturally significant as any of those artists, but in terms of rewarding a hard-earned fan base, it can call them peers.
Only hindsight can determine when that connection happens on a larger scale; these crucial instances become clear as part of a career arc rather than as discrete events. A fan also has to be paying attention to appreciate it in the moment, but everyone’s moment doesn’t have to be your moment. I missed Palomino, but First Avenue took its place. My nonlinear relationship with Trampled by Turtles taught me to love eight-year-old afterthoughts for the first time.
Josh Cohen is a member of the class of 2014.