It’s a trend among Billboard-charting bluegrass acts to take production cues from other genres, like rock and pop, retrofitting American roots songs with crisp, booming studio work. For Trampled by Turtles, other genres come into the picture earlier, when frontman Dave Simonett is songwriting or when the sextet unites to upscale his tunes into full-band versions.
Some of the group’s best-loved tunes, like “Wait So Long,” “Are You Behind the Shining Star,” and last year’s “The Middle,” certainly count as bluegrass genre entries, with their acoustic instrumentation, arrangement, and three-part harmonies, but they also contain unorthodox moments — in exertion, Simonett’s voice leans more punk rock than folk; the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle supply experimental pop melodies where, traditionally, harmonic sequences would go. This gives the band’s music a richness, and frankly, mass appeal, not possessed by many of their peers. It’s also the reason they’ve charted high on Billboard’s U.S. Alternative and Rock charts as well as its acoustic music charts.
On December 6, they’re unveiling their first collection of cover songs, the Sigourney Fever EP. In keeping with their eight previous studio releases, Fever walks the thin line between roots music and every other kind of music, re-envisioning popular cuts by other artists as six-piece acoustic jams.
“We are getting back into the readiness of making a full record,” Simonett says of why the band wanted to release cover music. “Right now, I’m starting to write, but it’s kind of a limbo time. This is sort of like an appetizer for us.”
Despite its five-song length, fans will be glad to know the EP is too creatively full-scale to be considered an interstice in the band’s discography. Its lead single, a reworking of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” dropped November 5th, puts a cinematic spin (something Trampled by Turtles does very well) on the mellow tune, with a spacious strings section under Simonett’s strident lead vocal.
The second track on Fever, a less jaunty cover of Faces’ “Ooh La La,” features the band’s bassist, Tim Saxhaug, on lead vocals above a traditional bluegrass instrumental arrangement. Next on the track list is “Our Town,” a song by Iris DeMont, and it’s a prime example of how acoustic sextet Trampled by Turtles, simply by leaving the doors open creatively, is able to make a bluegrass song less grassy. It’s more upbeat than the original, which is a downtempo ballad, and Simonett’s voice is rendered with sleek and reverbed production.
When it came to deciding which songs the band was going to cover, its members had an equal say in choosing.
“We had a large list, and it got whittled down to these,” Simonett says. “If you listen to it, you can tell that we didn’t have the thinking that they have to be the same [as the originals] or that we had to completely change it. A lot of the time, the simple act of putting it into our instrumentation makes it quite a bit different from the original version. So I kind of stuck to that as the difference maker.”
Simonett says the band hopes to release a series of cover EPs. If they’re able to remain as creative with other peoples’ work as they are with their own, the series will be a worthwhile addition to an already one-of-a-kind oeuvre.