Waiting On A Tree To Grow - Molly Tuttle's Bluegrass Breakthrough
Molly Tuttle became a bluegrass star at precisely the age and stage of her life when she needed to not be a bluegrass artist. She was 24 in 2017 when she won the first of her two consecutive International Bluegrass Music Association Awards as the first-ever female Guitar Player of the Year. The coveted prize had been won in the past by Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton, but no woman had ever even been nominated. Just weeks later, she released her first recording under her own name, an EP whose title suggested what she was ready to do in myriad ways, Rise.
Rise was a bluegrass-adjacent project, nearly all acoustic with some banjo and mandolin but quite free stylistically. Tuttle’s fluid and graceful flatpicking was prominent, and she embraced her unique, banjo-inspired “clawhammer” guitar style on the song “Save This Heart Of Mine” against a spectral backdrop of newgrass fiddle. She sang beautifully and had been an award-winning songwriter since her teens, so the tracks expressed a young woman growing in many directions with many influences. So what was next? You may know how we bluegrass fans can be, craving that particular synergy and flavor. Nobody with ears and a heart could have been disappointed by Molly Tuttle’s next moves. But the bluegrass lobes of our brain did have to be patient.
Tuttle took more than a year working on her debut full-length album When You’re Ready (perhaps an ironic jab at those pining for a certain genre of music?). Yet when it arrived in the spring of 2019, I hit play almost entirely unsure about what I’d hear. Its publicity promised “genre-defying, personal songs” with “range and versatility.” And the music delivered just that with a crafty indie pop feeling, letting the acoustic, electric and synthy sounds go where they needed. So would a swing back to bluegrass be next? Not quite. 2020’s …but i’d rather be with you, produced during the Covid stasis, dove even deeper into indie pop territory, with Tuttle covering ten of her varied influences, from the Rolling Stones to Harry Styles, The National and California punk band Rancid.
“It was funny. I was getting these bluegrass accolades, but at the same time I was having this phase where I wanted to go do other stuff and maybe not play a bunch of bluegrass festivals and not play with a banjo or mandolin in my band,” Tuttle told me in a March interview for an upcoming season of The Caverns Sessions on PBS. “It was nice to have those years of exploring, and I feel now like I’ve learned a lot by venturing out into other styles of music. And I kind of took that back. I feel like I got a bigger view of music as a whole that I kind of took into this bluegrass album.”
Did she say a bluegrass album? Really? Because I’ve harbored feelings for how strong her return to the music might be. I’ve seen Molly Tuttle pick it old time style with John Mailander. I’ve heard her magisterial, feminist iteration of “Cold Rain And Snow.” I’ve seen her slay with the First Ladies of Bluegrass supergroup. My point is, Tuttle brings an open mind and a Berklee College of Music education to everything she does, but bluegrass is in her soul. She was raised by Jack Tuttle, one of California’s most respected bluegrass music teachers, living the festival life, playing in a family band and being mentored by west coast greats like Laurie Lewis. As bluegrass builds on its 75 years of history for its next chapters in the 21st century, Molly’s voice, her picking, her poise and her song sensibility are exactly what the genre needs. And at last, the album (and the band and tour) are here, a study in the rewards of delayed gratification.
Crooked Tree arrived from Nonesuch Records on April 1, and after a few spins I came to believe it ought to be regarded as a landmark of the genre, pivotal in its own way as J.D. Crowe & the New South or Allison Krauss’s I’ve Got That Old Feeling. Its arc and its variety, its execution and its fresh feel are everything we could ask for in a string band project, because at its heart it's so well written, taking us through many ways that bluegrass can roll. As the album unfolded on my first listen back in March, I was reminded of the anticipation surrounding Dolly Parton’s The Grass Is Blue in 1999. Our community wondered feverishly what it would be like, if it could possibly meet our lofty hopes. And then there were moments in the middle of each album, 20+ years apart, that produced chills and tears and gratitude that such weighty beauty could exist.
The album opens with tempo, a twisty guitar figure joined by a banjo-driven hovercraft kind of propulsion on “She’ll Change,” a declaration of womanly independence. Special guests appear on the subsequent tracks. Margo Price lends her voice to “Flatland Girl” (both ladies have family roots in midwest farm life). Billy Strings, the other breakout young star making bluegrass guitar cool again, plays on “Dooley’s Farm,” a twist on the old American folk song in which Dooley is recast as a modern day underground cannabis grower. And then comes a real breakthrough track as Old Crow Medicine Show and an ensemble cast of voices sing together on “Big Back Yard.” Composed by Molly and Old Crow’s Ketch Secor, the song taps Woody Guthrie energy for a unifying message about America. It could have come off as corny or arch, but the way the lines play out, defying normal rhyme schemes and evoking all kinds of places and walks of life, makes it a modern folk classic. It should be sung at the 7th inning stretch of baseball games.
The middle act of the album is its most intense and muscular. The title track is one of a half dozen Tuttle wrote with Nashville singer and Front Country front-woman Melody Walker, and it has that magic power of a beautifully chosen metaphor. The “Crooked Tree” survives because it’s too gnarly and unique for the mill machine. The song climaxes on a lovely chorus that penetrates with the harmony vocals of Tina Adair and Ron Block, while the verses feature precisely turned lines like, “Perfect trees were driven down the mountain to the mill/They turned them into toothpicks and twenty dollar bills.”
Anchoring the album emotionally and musically for me is “The River Knows.” Also written by fierce feminists Tuttle and Walker, the song inverts the gender roles of traditional murder ballads. There’s betrayal and blood, retribution and regret, all propelled by that clawhammer guitar style, which she’s continued to refine into something propulsive and mystical. This track literally makes my heart beat faster every time I hear it.
Every great bluegrass album needs a ballad and a waltz, and those are mingled here on “San Francisco Blues,” which brings a kind of reverse Dustbowl narrative to a pressing modern-day issue, as a lonesome refugee leaves the city they love now that it’s unaffordable. The music just keeps changing speeds with the easy swing and smiling freedom of “Side Saddle,” sung with Gillian Welch. The conclusion is a lovely prose poem called “Grass Valley,” in which Tuttle paints the picture of the home state festival that seduced her to this music and its lifestyle, something we fans recognize deep down. It’s a sweet affirmation of why this genre is special even beyond the drum-tight harmonies and expert musicianship.
Speaking of, I’ve mentioned only a sampling of the instrumental talent represented on the album. Jerry Douglas co-produced with Tuttle and played dobro. Ron Block (also a veteran of Krauss’s Union Station) is the banjo player throughout, while fiddling is shared among Jason Carter, Christian Sedelmyer and Darol Anger. Dominic Leslie handles the mandolin, as he does in Tuttle’s road band now. It’s the kind of ensemble master sessions that bluegrass was full of in the 80s and 90s.
Now Tuttle is on the road with her carefully chosen band of fellow young guns. Besides Leslie on mando, the group Golden Highway includes power hippie Kyle Tuttle on banjo, dazzling Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (of the band Mile Twelve) on fiddle and Nashville’s bright star Shelby Means on bass and harmony vocals. It’s a state-of-the-art group that tells a powerful story of bluegrass music in 2022, made all the better by the strength and variety in the songs they’re performing.
I saw Tuttle and Golden Highway play for almost 300 people in the history-rich former train warehouse in Chattanooga called Songbirds. I was struck that since the gaping void of more than two years since I’d seen her perform, Tuttle had a new stance on stage, a confident new game face. The new bluegrass material soared, while even some of her pop-leaning material like “Light Came In (Power Went Out)” translated really well to the five-piece acoustic band. Kyle Tuttle (no relation) sang lead on John Hartford’s “Boogie,” as if in solidarity with the man who straddled bluegrass and newgrass like no other. They made tasty jam vehicles out of “Super Moon,” a dazzling guitar instrumental from Rise, and the new, minor-key “Castillija.” And Tuttle sang that version of “Cold Rain And Snow” that flabbergasted me almost five years ago.
None of us love waiting for something we dearly desire, but the old wisdom holds true that we’re a lot more tuned up to savor it when it arrives.