Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway: A Return to Roots
Molly Tuttle grew up in a musical family; her father Jack was a multi-instrumentalist and teacher, and they had a family band. From the age of 8, she’s been playing guitar on stages, initially in California, then at the Berklee School of Music, and finally settling in Nashville in 2015 at the age of 22, where she found a fertile group of young musicians and writers to work with. It didn’t take her long to generate a reputation as one of the best flatpickers anywhere. In 2017 she became the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award, and repeated in 2018; that same year she was voted Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association. After several collaboration albums, she released her first solo EP Rise which rose to #2 on the bluegrass charts. Her first full-length album, When You’re Ready, drifted from bluegrass into Americana, and the introspective songs showed her maturation as a songwriter and singer. But it was only a matter of time until she returned to her love of bluegrass.
For her recent album, Crooked Tree, she put together a list of supporting bluegrass and Americana musicians that would catch anyone’s eye: Gillian Welch, Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, Dan Tyminski, Margo Price, Jason Carter, Tina Adair, Old Crow’s Ketch Secor, and Jerry Douglas, who produced the album. With all the songs co-written by Tuttle, the album serves as a reflection of her past in many ways; her love of music as a child, her home town of San Francisco, her challenges and her maturation. For her current tour she put together some of the best pickers around: Dom Leslie, from Hawktail and his wife Phoebe Hunt’s band the Gatherers; Kyle Tuttle (no relation), a well-known session banjo player; bass virtuoso Shelby Means; and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, IBMA fiddler of the year in 2021.
The show at Bok Tower Gardens was probably one of the most relaxed locations on her current tour, which includes multiple bluegrass festivals and larger venues. Outdoors on the oval lawn at the Gardens, it included kids and their parents dancing in the grass, an attentive and appreciative crowd that was familiar with her music, and a beautiful setting. Fresh from an appearance on CBS Saturday Morning last weekend, her set included all 13 songs on the new album plus some extras. A version of “Goodbye Girl” morphed into a Keith-Hynes tour de force version of “Orange Blossom Special,” there was one song from her EP Rise (“Super Moon”), and one of her most popular songs from When You’re Ready, “Take the Journey.” Other additions were the Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” which she has covered before; the traditional tunes “Sleepy Eyed John” and “Rain and Snow”; Bill Monroe’s “Little Georgia Rose”; Vassar Clements’ “Kissimmee Kid”; and one of her flatpicking standbys, Townes VanZandt’s “White Freightliner.”
But the songs from the new album generated the most response. The Western swing song “Side Saddle,” was written with independent horsewomen in mind. “Dooley’s Farm,” based loosely on The Dillard’s classic “Dooley,” envisions a switch in rural economy from moonshine to weed. Four songs really stood out, beginning with the blistering “She’ll Change,” which she described as “…a homage to the strong musical women who helped me find my own voice.” It showcases her amazing flatpicking with great harmony vocals. The title track, “Crooked Tree,” co-written with talented songwriter Melody Walker, who co-wrote three other songs on the album, describes how those who are different develop strength; Tuttle has had alopecia since childhood and always wore hats as a child and a wig as an adult, and her comments ring true. The moving “Grass Valley” describes her first time at a bluegrass festival as a child and what it meant to her, and in the middle of the song, Dom Leslie added a beautiful instrumental version of the old fiddle tune “Chinquapin Hunting.” For her final encore, she picked a song that was inspired by Woody Guthrie, a song of inclusion and community called “Big Backyard.”
I’ve seen and photographed Tuttle at least five times in the past, and this is the best show I’ve seen. She’s maturing as a frontperson, much more at ease with something that doesn’t come easy, and the interaction between the band members was dynamic and fun; they really are enjoying themselves. Probably the biggest surprise to me was the talented Bronwyn Keith-Hynes. I have seen her with her former band Mile Twelve, but her performance was more dynamic and engaged than I’ve seen, and her interactions with Kyle Tuttle, who is a live wire on stage, were great fun.
They have a full schedule coming up this summer and fall, and if you get a chance to see a show, you will not be disappointed. This was one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, and the most accomplished band. They are truly hot stuff…