I have met Molly Tuttle once; I think it was at the California Bluegrass Association’s music camp in Grass Valley a few years ago. I’ve known her dad, Jack, for about three decades and counting. I also know her aunt, Sully Roddy, who is a well-known DJ. I remember seeing Molly perform as a teenager with the family band, The Tuttles and A. J. Lee. Molly was awarded the first Hazel Dickens scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and I remember seeing her in a band called the Goodbye Girls in a tiny venue in San Francisco.
Molly was the first female winner of the IBMA guitar player of the year a few years back and can now only be described as a phenomenon. I saw her perform with her current band, Golden Highway, at the CBA Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in June 2018 in a pretty glitzy show with lots of lights, fancy costumes, and very fast picking. She performed her song “Grass Valley” there, of course, and it is the final song on the album “Crooked Tree.” However, with the exception of her current mandolin player, Dominick Leslie on most cuts and fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on the title cut “Crooked Tree,” this album features Molly with a long list of big bluegrass names: Jerry Douglas on dobro, Ron Block on banjo, Jason Carter, Christian Sedelmyer, Darol Anger, and Ketch Secor on fiddle, Mike Bub, Todd Phillips, and Victor Krauss on bass, Sierra Hull on Mandolin, Billy Strings on guitar, and vocals by Tina Adair, Gillian Welch, Marge Price, Jack Tuttle, and Dan Tyminski. Molly cowrote all thirteen songs, many with Secor, but three with Melody Walker, one with Steve Foltz, one with Becky Buller, and one with my old friend Mark Simos, who teaches at Berklee. The cut “Big Backyard” features Old Crow Medicine Show.
This album, which won a Grammy in 2023 as best bluegrass album, has been receiving a lot of airplay, so you may have heard “Dooley’s Farm,” “Big Backyard,” “Crooked Tree,” “Goodbye Girl,” and “Grass Valley,” if not more, on radio shows. Jerry Douglas co-produced it with Molly. The first cut, “She’ll Change,” showcases Molly’s voice and hard-driving flat-picked guitar in a song about a mercurial woman. “Flatland Girl” is about memories of her grandparents’ farm in Illinois. “Dooley’s Farm” is about a moonshiner and features Billy Strings. “Big Backyard” has a different feel with a totally different band behind Molly, Jerry, and Ketch. “Crooked Tree” is about those who survive by being different. “Castilleja” is a love song set in old California. “The River Knows” is about betrayal. “Over the Line” is about wild passion. “Nashville Mess Around” is about a night on the town in music city. The breakneck pace yields to the slow and wistful “San Francisco Blues” about being down and out in the city by the bay. The pace picks back up with “Goodbye Girl,” a song about traveling and leaving. “Side Saddle” is a swing number about a woman asserting her independence. “Grass Valley,” on which Molly’s father, Jack, is a poignant memory of camping and jamming at the Father’s Day Festival. The lyrics mention “Little Annie,” a Carter Family song brought to bluegrass by the late Vern Williams. I recall walking through the campground many years ago and hearing Vern powerful tenor singing it in a jam from far away. When I arrived at the stage, Laurie Lewis was singing it.
Every piece is arranged perfectly, and these are many of the finest musicians in the bluegrass community at their best. Molly’s Grammy is, indeed, very well-earned.
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway