After nearly a year apart, Trampled by Turtles met up in a cabin in the woods, cracked a couple of beers and recorded a Tom Petty cover in honor of the artist’s death. It was October 2017, and the band had reunited to begin work on its new album.
The album, Life is Good on the Open Road, returns to the band’s early sound. Where its more recent albums saw the band layering recordings of the same instrument playing different harmonies on top of one another to create an orchestral effect, Life is Good on the Open Road chose to forgo heavy production. Fiddle player Ryan Young acknowledged this, describing how the recording process was meant to capture how the band sounds live.
“We sat in a circle and put microphones in front of us and just hit record and played,” Young said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s a little more raw.”
While the band may have stripped down its sound for this record, the album still carries the characteristic force of its music.
“Trampled by Turtles can be very loud and in-your-face and high-energy. Not all of our songs are like that, but a lot of them are,” Young admitted.
And indeed, there are plenty of high-energy songs on the album. This energy is often carried by Young’s unique approach to his fiddle playing. Where many fiddlers play long notes, Young described his playing as a snare drum part on the fiddle.
Listening to new tracks such as “Kelly’s Bar” and “Annihilate,” as well as the band’s more popular songs from previous albums, the effect of this fiddle invoking a snare drum becomes clear — it calls to the origins of American folk music. With each note, Trampled by Turtles is channeling the best of the genre: a genre built on spirituals, on Appalachian music, on the music that ran through some of the most oppressed communities of early America.
Life is Good on the Open Road is an album that invokes liminality. Beyond the title speaking to the inherent in-betweenness of a trans-America trek — songs such as “I Went to Hollywood” and “I’m Not There Anymore” chronicle an individual who is always leaving or being left.
Though it is tempting to narrow the source of the longing and loneliness of the album to lead singer Dave Simonett’s divorce, the album manages to feel relevant for far broader circumstances.
“It isn’t necessarily cut and dry what the songs are about,” Young said, listing this characteristic as one of the draws of Simonett’s writing.
The final lyrics on the album, “I know you can’t save me / But I know that’s all right,” provide a quiet contrast to the opening song, which conveys the height of the band’s percussive energy. Inversely, the final song is a quiet, confessional ballad. Though the record reaches back into the rawest, freshest moments of the grief, it is very much written from a place that’s farther down the road. Simonett may be singing about his divorce, but he is doing so several years after the fact.
It’s debatable whether Life is Good on the Open Road reaches a resolution for the emotions it presents. Given the personal nature of the album, the answer to this question largely depends on the individual listener’s perception.
“Let’s just be together,” Simonett sings in the final track. “We’ll know what to do.” Fittingly, it is unclear whom Simonett is addressing — we don’t know whether the person he’s singing to is someone he’s already lost, or someone he’s since found. And maybe it doesn’t matter. The vagueness of the song allows for a number of different interpretations, which is reinforced by the way each band member is given the opportunity for their instrument to become the focus, both within the track and within the album as a whole.
One of the reasons the band works so well is its members’ ability to listen to one another, to give each other the space to have their ideas heard, Young explained. This quality expands from the creative process, manifesting itself in the final songs. While they may be played by six different people, the instrumentals of Life is Good on the Open Road never trample over themselves.
“If someone has a good idea, they make sure that idea is heard,” Young said.