Trampled by Turtles never lost its hometown footing, even as it's being heard 'round the globe.
When the show's host strolled onstage during soundcheck, everybody acted as cool as the frozen harbor right outside the loading dock. The members of Trampled by Turtles gave him the what's-up head nod and kept to their instruments. The college girls gathered at the back of the stage were too busy eyeing the musicians to notice him. Which seemed to amuse Garrison Keillor most of all.
"There are a bunch of young female fans watching you from behind," he advised the band, "so don't scratch your ass."
The ice officially broken, the band dug right into its proud Duluthian roots. Keillor wanted the city's most prominent musical sons since Bob Dylan to play a Dylan song to close "A Prairie Home Companion's" live broadcast Feb. 25 from the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Given a list, the host settled on "I Shall Be Released" because "it has that nice gospel feel." Only one member needed a little coaching on lyrics, the same guy a seemingly impressed Keillor singled out as they finished up the short rehearsal.
"You don't look like a banjo player," he told Dave Carroll. "Your shoulders are supposed to be hunched over."
It's been said before, but it was literally brought home to the 4 million listeners around the world who heard Trampled by Turtles from their own back yard: These aren't your granddaddy's bluegrass musicians.
The all-acoustic quintet's "Prairie Home" debut was the unofficial kickoff to a yearlong orbit around "Stars and Satellites," the album that touches down Tuesday. Upcoming gigs range from Bonnaroo (the nation's biggest rock fest) to the fabled Newport Folk Festival (yep, another Dylan connection).
"Stars and Satellites" was recorded in a lodge in the woods about 20 minutes from where the songs were debuted for an international radio audience. The outdoorsy setting inspired the guys to get a little more out-there musically. They mostly left behind the rapid-fire, punky string-picking that has made them one of Minnesota's most popular live acts in favor of slower, expansive arrangements and glowing, hushed tones.
It was quite the Up North recording experience. Carroll is still talking about the wolf pack he heard take down a deer outside the studio one night: "They were just going nuts, calling for everybody, and all of a sudden the noise just stopped. You know they were getting fed."
It sounds like the band similarly rushed in for the kill. Singer/guitarist Dave Simonett, who handles most of the songwriting, e-mailed them the new tunes only a day or two before recording began last September.
"First time I listened to them was on the drive up to record," said Minneapolis-based fiddler Ryan Young, whose fiery work burns beautifully all over the single "Alone" and many more.
Mandolinist Erik Berry one-bettered Young: "My computer didn't recognize the files, so I didn't hear them at all."
Despite that lack of prep time -- or maybe because of it -- "Stars and Satellites" wound up being TBT's most finessed, ornate-sounding and, yes, best album yet. It very nearly became their major-label debut, too.
Because "A Prairie Home's" other guest that day was the 21-member Grand Rapids High School Jazz Ensemble, the Trampled crew got the smaller dressing room. Bassist Tim Saxhaug shared both, though, since he grew up in Grand Rapids and learned from the same band director.
"It's a pretty proud moment for me," he said with a smile, sharing some not-so-proud stories of misconduct in the old band hall.
Plenty more tales came out during the three-plus hours the five bandmates spent in the cramped dressing room, waiting out the show's other rehearsals. There were no complaints, though. Clearly, these guys spend plenty of time cooped up together.
They talked about the TV shows and movies they'd watched that week. They talked about their young kids (Berry has two, Simonett one). They talked about all the friends and relatives tuning in to Keillor's show that day. Carroll's parents would be listening from Hawaii. Berry said a few people he knows "all think this is our peak; everything we accomplish from here on out won't compare."
They also reminisced about the band's early days just up the hill from the auditorium. Like their very first official band rehearsal in 2003.
"It was a Sunday, and we were supposed to meet at 7 p.m.," Carroll recalled. "We called each other and were like, 'Dude, "The Simpsons" are on, so ... 7:30?'"
It's hard to believe that these musicians -- who, let's face it, could all pass for canoe outfitters -- almost joined the same record label as some of the glitziest, top-selling hip-hop, R&B and hard-rock acts around. The move made sense after TBT's self-released 2010 album, "Palomino," sold more than 50,000 copies. A smaller label couldn't offer much that they hadn't already achieved themselves.
The deal was so close that photo shoots were arranged, artwork was laid out and lawyers had started hashing out numbers.
"It got down to the absolute 11th hour, and we got a phone call from somebody in the business office way high up," recalled Simonett. "They said they 'didn't hear a single' on the record. They didn't hear anything that they could market, and wanted to know if we could change it, re-record it."
Somebody even suggested re-recording "Wait so Long," the calling-card of a single from "Palomino."
"We feel like the decision was made for us," Simonett said. "When the total freedom of doing it ourselves came back to us, we knew that's where we need to be."
Minutes into the broadcast, the band's name became a punch line. "What about Stepped on by Snakes or Trod on by Termites?" Keillor improvised. Later, he marveled at TBT's touring schedule, asking about their mode of transportation.
"Sometimes a bus, sometimes a van," Simonett answered.
"Ah, a band that goes both ways."
Of the four songs played on air, three came from the new album. The fast-picking "Walt Whitman" suited the gig well, although (shhh!) it's more about drinking than poetry. "Midnight on the Interstate," which opens the record, slowed things down to a slow-humming ambience and weary lines about a soured birthday. And then there's "Alone," the Dylanesque epic that starts out with an elegant stillness and builds into a squall around the lines:
"The days and nights are killing me / The light and dark are still in me / But there's an anchor on the beach / So let the wind blow hard"
It's stupefying to think that the big-wig label folks didn't hear a golden opportunity in "Alone." Influential radio stations such as 89.3 the Current, New York's WFUV and Austin, Texas' KUT have already put it into heavy rotation.
Stepping out for a final smoke break on the loading dock, Simonett sighed as he exhaled over the glowing view of the Aerial Lift Bridge and Twin Ports harbor against the ice.
"The last place Annie and I lived here was up on the hill with this view," he said. Simonett and his wife, who's a teacher, relocated to Minneapolis seven years ago. Neither the move nor the formation of his electric side band, Dead Man Winter, slowed TBT's progress. Simonett seems quite certain both developments helped, and it's hard to argue otherwise.
"I do miss it," he said of Duluth. "But I always seem to make it back."