Lightning & Grace: Molly Tuttle’s ‘Crooked Tree’

Molly Tuttle’s solo work has never attempted to hide her bluegrass roots. A wunderkind grown champion, Tuttle’s earnestness for guitar began in grade school, her fascination with bluegrass followed shortly, and before she could legally drive, Molly was on the road with her family band.

Tuttle’s 2017 debut solo EP Rise dazzled with razor-sharp acoustic guitar matched with a modern singer-songwriter’s lilt, and in 2019, the Northern Californian released the full-length When You’re Ready, a feast of drive, technique, and power pop-ish Americana that showcased her maturing ability with the pen as well as her continually evolving skills as one of the greatest guitarists of her generation.

When COVID-19 made touring and in-person performances impossible, Tuttle found an opportunity to further explore her capabilities with an album of seemingly against-type covers. But I’d Rather Be With You drew from an eclectic grab bag of artists– Rancid, Cat Stevens, The National, Harry Styles, The Rolling Stones among them–  to interpret and redefine some of Molly’s favorite tunes through inimitable six-string heroism.

It would be foolish to call Tuttle’s latest effort a return to form as the 29-year-old has only ever appeared to challenge not limit herself by any single style, but if her previous recordings only contained aspects of bluegrass without planting both feet then Crooked Tree is elementally committed.

Fronting a band of sophisticates dubbed Golden Highway (Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Dominick Leslie, Kyle Tuttle, and Shelby Means), Tuttle wields warm harmony and nostalgia across thirteen tracks co-produced by Jerry Douglas that feature guest shots from Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch, Margo Price, Dan Tyminski, Sierra Hull, and Billy Strings. It’s the bluegrass album Tuttle has always wanted to make, full of lightning, grace, and authenticity.

AI- “She’ll Change”, the lead track on Crooked Tree— on its surface, that may not appear to be autobiographical, but I’m gonna suggest that it is! With the last couple projects that you’ve been involved with, even though your name is practically synonymous with bluegrass, they haven’t been straight bluegrass, and then you had your album of tributes. So I feel like “She’ll Change” is really you in nutshell!

MT- Oh, yeah? Thank you! I wrote that one with Ketch Secor, and we were thinking about all the amazing women that inspired both of us. I wanted to start the album with that song ’cause it is kind of a departure for me to go back to bluegrass, and I don’t know if people were expecting me to make a bluegrass album, but we put out that one as the first single to set the tone for, “I’m goin’ in a new direction!” You nailed that!

You’d made a statement to the tune of always wanting to make a straight bluegrass album, and I’m paraphrasing, but essentially, what you said was that you didn’t think you had the necessary bonafides ’cause you grew up in Palo Alto, California. I don’t think one has anything to do with the other as far as the formula goes– was that really the only reluctance?

No, that wasn’t the only reluctance. I think since I grew up with bluegrass and it’s what my dad listened to and played– my dad was my first guitar teacher– I felt in my teenage years and early twenties that I wanted to explore other genres and find my own sound. But the last couple of years, I felt really nostalgic for the music that I grew up with and the community and goin’ to bluegrass jams… I think being isolated during the pandemic, I was really missing the community aspect of bluegrass– that’s why I fell in love with the music in the first place! So it felt like the right time to go back to my roots.

You’re not the first person I’ve spoken with to bring up that “community” part of being involved with bluegrass. You suffered through the tornados, as everyone else did in Nashville, and then just right on the heels of that, you had the pandemic begin…

Yeah, it was pretty brutal.

I did want to divert just a little bit to bring up But I’d Rather Be With You because, again, as I mentioned at the top, you’ve done some different things, and that was particularly different! You got a chance to interpret songs that I don’t think anybody would’ve guessed you would have!

That was a really fun project ’cause I got to choose these songs that I felt I could make my own and make really different from the originals and also show people who like my music these other styles that I love and how I would interpret a punk rock song or Grateful Dead song. It was definitely a fun project, especially during the pandemic when we couldn’t tour or play with other people. It was nice to still be able to share music with people.

You’ve had an opportunity to speak at length about taking the Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow” and turning it into a feminist anthem, and I saw your Vogue interview where you talked about how that outspoken feminism has been misconstrued as politicism. I think that it’s unfortunate that it was seen that way. I don’t think I know enough about bluegrass circles to comment on political activity within them, but is that something that is ultimately frowned upon?

It is and it isn’t. I think there have always been political people in bluegrass. One of my biggest heroes is Hazel Dickens, who always wrote political songs, and she wrote lots of feminist bluegrass songs and was very outspoken about what she believed in. That’s who I kinda modeled myself after. She was one of the first women to lead her own bluegrass band, so she’s a really big hero of mine! But there are people in the genre who say things like, “You should just stick to music, we don’t need to hear your politics,” and stuff like that.

On that same note, let me jump on “Side Saddle” with Gillian Welch guest starring. I love Gillian! And you two share a lot of similarities in your story. From taking that idea of feminism in bluegrass and writing your own anthem in that vein, was Gillian your first inclination? What’d she think of it?

I sent her a few different songs and was like, “I’d love to have you on the album. If any of these songs resonate with you, you’re welcome to sing on anything,” and she chose that one. I was really excited to have her on that ’cause she is one of my biggest heroes, and it just felt appropriate to have such an amazing woman singing on “Side Saddle”!

When you go to bluegrass festivals, which I think you’ve been doing almost your entire life, what do you see as far as the younger female generation coming up through those ranks?

It definitely seems more equal like there are more women playing instruments. When I was a kid, people never expected me to take a guitar solo when I went to a bluegrass jam, but now it seems like there’s a lot more girls playing lead guitar, which is really cool. But I don’t know exactly ’cause I’m not out there in the campgrounds jamming as much as I was before, but it does seem like there is a shift happening.

Do you think you’re playin’ a part in that? Seein’ more girls takin’ the solo?’Cause you’ve become that icon as a guitar player.

I hope so, yeah! I had really amazing women to look up to where I grew up– like Laurie Lewis, who led her own band and played the fiddle and wrote her own songs. Hopefully, you see what you see, so girls who see someone play lead guitar on stage will be able to see themselves doing that as well.

Photo by Samantha Muljat

You brought up Ketch Secor at the beginning… Ketch is absolutely hilarious! I’ve only had an opportunity to speak to him the one time, but I’m still in stitches over it! He’s got a co-write on eight songs on Crooked Tree— is this the first time that you’ve written at length with Ketch? I know you’ve performed a lot with Old Crow, but what brought you together as writing partners?

I started doing shows with Old Crow, I think back in 2019, and then Ketch and I did a duo tour together, and then we started writing songs together. It’s been a really fun collaboration! I’ve admired his songwriting for a long time, so it was really awesome to get to write with him for the new album.

Jerry Douglas… I don’t suppose there could have been any other choice as far as someone to come in and join you at the helm of the album! I was watchin’ some of the recorded stuff that you did over at DelFest, and watching you and the band interact, it’s obvious that every time Jerry steps up to take that dobro solo, everybody is in rapt attention! Even while they’re doin’ all o’ things that they’re doin’!

It’s super exciting whenever we get to collaborate with him! I’ve worked with him over the years a little bit since moving to Nashville. I did this tour that he puts together in the UK called the Transatlantic Sessions— that was my first time getting to see him lead a band and produce a show and arrange music. I knew how he worked and that was why going into my album, I felt so comfortable co-producing with him. He’s great to work with, super easygoing, and he brings out the best in everyone ’cause he just lets people be who they are, musically. He’s a little intimidating ’cause he’s such a legend, but at the same time, he’s so nice that you can’t be too intimidated! Every time he plays with my band, everyone’s just so excited and hanging on every note that he plays!

The song “Dooley’s Farm”— we’ve been havin’ a ball with that one here in Macon– inspired and partially an update of The Dillards’ “Dooley”, but in a music meeting the other day, my boss brought up that he thought it was more of an update or 21st Century version of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” as well.

Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot too (laughs)!

You got Billy Strings on there, and I was just pleased and thrilled to learn that you and Billy had been roommates in Nashville early on when you first got there! I think a great deal of folks have imagined the jam sessions that could have happened in that apartment or house or wherever it was. Validate that! What was goin’ on there?

We were both touring a lot, but when we were off the road, we had a neighbor, Lindsay Lou, who’s also a great musician in Nashville, so it was a really musical street. A lot of times, Lindsay was the one putting together the picking parties. We would go on her porch and play music and it was so much fun! It was a really magical time in Nashville where we all lived on one block together. There were a lot o’ jams– but we were also both really tired when we’d get off the road, so a lotta time, we would just be sleeping (laughs)!

Best in the world. That label gets thrown around a lot with you as a guitar player, and of course, you’ve won numerous awards, and to watch you play the different styles that you use with either hand does at times appear to be a bit supernatural. I can only imagine how much time you spend keeping yourself in musical shape! I was havin’ a conversation about guitar players with a friend of mine not too long ago, and a question that we had was, “When do you think a guitarist reaches their peak?” And I mean that creatively as well as in ability.

Oh! As far as like age or how many years you’ve been playing?

Pick one! Or if this is something that you’ve considered before, possibly you have an idea as well?

I hope I still haven’t reached my peak, but I definitely practiced a lot more when I was a teenager and in my early twenties when I just had more time. It’s hard to say! There’s the “ten thousand hours” thing where once you play for ten thousand hours then you’re a master? I had a guitar teacher say, “Once you hit twenty-five, you are gonna stop learning as much and your fingers will learn less quickly,” so that’s one theory. I don’t know? I haven’t given it a lot of thought. I’m not sure (laughs)!

Well, no I don’t believe you’ve hit your peak yet! I think you’ve got plenty to innovate and do! Dan Tyminski joins you for “San Francisco Blues”. The backstory behind that song, you’ve written it about that area basically pricing its citizens out, but I also see that particularly happening all over. Do you see that when you travel? That’s something that I’d spoken about with Dar Williams, how when she travels, she notices the way things like that affect communities.

I definitely notice it all over the place– it’s happening where I live in Nashville now. I think that song can resonate with people in lots of different cities, but I feel like people who are being priced out of San Francisco are moving to other places and maybe contributing to people getting priced out of other cities ’cause they’re spreading all over the place. It’s definitely happening all over the country and you really can see it on tour.

When You’re Ready had elements of bluegrass, certainly was more a contemporary record, and we talked about the eclecticism of But I’d Rather Be With You. People say “crossover artist”, and I think in your case, they mean going from bluegrass into the generally more popular Americana form. Do you consider yourself crossing over or do you feel like what you’re doing is just facets of the same thing? And is that a concern that you have– when people start using the word crossover?

With that album, in particular, I wanted to cross into a different genre than what I had been playing in the past, so I don’t mind that word. But I think I always hoped that even though now I’m playing more straight-ahead bluegrass that people who like all styles of music can still appreciate it.

Do you think you’re gonna consider holding strong in bluegrass for a while or do you have something else in mind?

I really love the band I’m playing with now, and they’re all such good friends of mine, we’re havin’ so much fun on the road, so I think I’ll definitely stick with this project for the foreseeable future. I’m not really sure what I’m gonna do next, but I’m definitely having fun with where I’m at right now!

Crooked Tree is available now on CD or LP and through all major digital platforms!

Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts Americana Madness weekdays from 10am-3pm and Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Sunday evening at 1pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.