TBT do what they do
Trampled By Turtles’ Life Is Good on the Open Road breaks a two-year touring hiatus and a four-year recording hiatus for the band, the longest gap in their professional career. Leader Dave Simonett sought some time away from the demands of their rigorous touring schedule on the heels of a divorce. Everybody kept busy with auxiliary musical endeavors in the meantime until reconvening late in 2017, galvanized in part by the death of shared hero Tom Petty, realizing the preciousness of a steady band and, indeed, of life itself.
This is a rather touching story but the album it has yielded bears few of its marks. Certainly, there is a sweet air of joy and renewal throughout, but Trampled By Turtles could tell us Life Is Good on the Open Road was recorded two years, one year, one month or a week after sessions for 2014s Wild Animals concluded – they could tell us it was recorded in 1998! – and who would doubt them? There is no discernible struggle or apparent effort at innovation, no whisper of time’s passage. It is a serviceable, satisfactory album in a genre where those are reasonable aspirations. Bluegrass does not exist in a vacuum, of course, it moves, but through a largely static landscape.
So the banjos and guitars and fiddles gallop on the fast numbers and canter or plod on the slow ones, all generally indistinctly, and ditto for the lyrics. Do we need another song about a country boy disillusioned by the big time in Hollywood? Do we want it? With a few exceptions, there are points where the album’s scant tension is shown. It’s easy to admire the teeth-baring on the harder-edged “Blood In the Water” against its more pleasant surroundings, while I cannot help but be endeared to the travelogue “Thank You, John Steinbeck.” It name-checks Travels With Charley and conveys its redemptive message with equal elegance and grit: “I was saved by the water of rivers / By the laughter of children who wish I was home / But asking the world to make it come easy / Didn’t work for your parents, yeah, you’re on your own.” Additionally, preceding scorn for “I Went to Hollywood” aside, similar thematic territory is mined bitterly and much more effectively on “Right Where We Started.” The song documents a land where “the bar’s always full and the people are so pretty. Hollow little vessels that survive on the light” – probably the finest writing on the album.
Still, the most memorable song here might be the album’s lone instrumental and penultimate track, “Good Land.” It is difficult to explain why – it has that ineffable quality of roots music with its evocation of a specific time and place, bygone but made as warmly alive as when it was all around. In its austere beauty, it validates the modesty of this music’s aspirations. It transports you, it paints images in your mind, it defeats cynicism… Not permanently, there are eleven more tracks to consider. But for a moment there, Trampled By Turtles capture the magic of their form. They really do.