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Ask most musicians to describe their sound, and a generic answer is likely to be proffered quickly. Such a response is fair: An artist works hard to create a product that can't be lumped into the bargain bin of buzzwords.
When Erik Berry of Trampled by Turtles is asked what kind of band he and his mates are in, the mandolin player of Duluth, Minnesota's rootsy stage-stompers replies with an answer equal parts practical and whimsical: "We're kind of a bluegrass band." After listening to the acoustic five-piece's latest album, Palomino, it's easy to see why Berry offered the open-ended disclaimer. The group plays a dizzying brand of bluegrass that's often described as "progressive bluegrass" or "punk-grass" by some who have a tough time wrapping their brains around a description.
Trampled by Turtles don't necessarily resemble a roots or bluegrass band, and Duluth isn't exactly a hotbed of the high lonesome sound. Each of the members toiled in various punk and rock outfits before joining up to jam acoustically. It wasn't until college that Berry even truly listened to bluegrass for the first time: "I had my own radio show and I was assigned to do a bluegrass show. I didn't pick it, because I didn't know anything about it."
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So, how does a new band that hasn't lived and breathed Foggy Mountain anthems since childhood get rolling? According to Berry, one starts by simply using the resources available. "In a lot of ways, becoming a bluegrass-type band was a very natural thing that we didn't necessarily plan," he says. "In the early days, we just played songs we all knew, and they weren't necessarily bluegrass songs, or tunes without drums or electric guitar. We just tried to recreate those sounds if the song we played had instruments we didn't have."
Given the band's history, it's completely understandable that expanding, and even surging past, the preconceived boundaries of bluegrass is something they've been doing without fully realizing. Their latest singles reveal a unit that isn't worried about injecting some of the rock from their pasts into the musical present. A recent cover of the Pixies classic "Where Is My Mind" and newly released split single with Minnesota pop-punk act Motion City Soundtrack, in which each band covers a song from the other's catalog, are choices that would likely cause Bill Monroe to take a spiteful swing with his mandolin.
Of course, for many musicians and fans, whether a song can be labeled as "great" or not matters far more than what tab the tune can be found under on iTunes.
"In high school, one of my music teachers told me, 'A great song will sound great on an out-of-tune piano, and a bad song will still sound terrible, even with the highest production value,'" Berry explains. "But it is hard to do a Rolling Stones song bluegrass style because you would have to change their beats and they're just not as cool that way."
Still, Berry admits that narrowing down a genre isn't such an impossible chore.
"My wife and close friends just think I'm in a rock band," Berry says. "So, I guess we are a rock band. Kind of."