Dizzy Spins: Molly Tuttle is in Charge. We Will Be Just Fine.
Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway's new release is a new high point in an already stellar career.
In 2017, Molly Tuttle became the first woman to be named the International Bluegrass Musician’s Association guitar player of the year. She was given the title again in 2018. Her 2022 release Crooked Tree took home the Grammy for best bluegrass album, and she was nominated in the broad category of Best New Artist. She just released her fourth full-length album, City of Gold, with her band of equally talented players, Golden Highway.
Tuttle grew up in Northern California (she now lives in Nashville). She began playing in her father’s band – The Tuttles with AJ Lee - featuring vocalist and mandolin virtuoso AJ Lee and Molly’s brother Sullivan who is also a gifted guitarist (Sullivan Tuttle and AJ Lee continue to collaborate in AJ Lee and Blue Summit). She studied music at Berklee. She has worked along the way with a “who’s who” of great players, recently appearing on albums by Bela Fleck, Old Crow Medicine Show, Billy Strings, and the latest by Tommy Emmanuel, singing and trading licks with the acoustic guitar great on the Townes Van Zandt song White Freightliner Blues.
For last year’s Crooked Tree, Tuttle wrote the songs and brought them to the studio. The album featured guest appearances by Darol Anger, Jason Carter, Sierra Hull, Old Crow Medicine Show and Gillian Welch, among others. City of Gold features songs written by Tuttle and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and arranged in-studio with Golden Highway (Kyle Tuttle – not related – on banjo, award winning fiddle-player Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, upright bassist Shelby Means, and Dominick Leslie of the band Hawktail on mandolin), with only a few guest musicians. Tuttle says she found kinship and creative trust after touring with Golden Highway and wanted to tap into it. Input from the rest of the band gives this record musical depth while highlighting the chops of some of the best players of this era.
City of Gold was co-produced by dobro master Jerry Douglas. The result is a (mostly) bluegrass record with tons of shredding, themes about the west coast, clever storytelling, heartfelt introspection, and politics.
The lead off track El Dorado paints a picture of gold rush era California with a cast of characters in an old prospecting town. She likens the fervor of “gold fever” in the 1800’s with her own desire to make music and trends like cryptocurrency that drive people to extreme measures.
On Crooked Tree, she touches on cannabis with the song Dooley’s Farm, which, like prohibition songs about bootleggers, talks about the driver of a new underground economy in the South - weed: “They used to grow tobacco, then they made moonshine / Now there’s something better in the back of the barn, down on Dooley’s Farm.” The song San Joaquin talks about bringing “Humboldt green” to California’s Central Valley by hopping a train. In Down Home Dispensary she writes a clever, open letter to the legislators, especially those in the South and her new home state, Tennessee, encouraging them to join the trend and at least make marijuana legal medicinally.
Recently, Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway recorded a version of the Jefferson Airplane classic White Rabbit. In the video they wear Alice in Wonderland costumes, Molly as the Queen of Hearts and Keith-Hynes as Alice.
They continue the Wonderland theme with the new song Alice in the Bluegrass. In it Alice has an epiphany after a glimpse of a culture different from her own. Being from the San Francisco Bay Area, Tuttle seems well versed in Grateful Dead songs and plays a couple of them in her repertoire. Alice in the Bluegrass sounds like it could have also been inspired by a line in Scarlet Begonias, “Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places when you look at it right.”
On the surface, Where Did All the Wild Things Go? seems like a song about partying, but is meant as social commentary on gentrification, especially in Tuttle’s current home, Nashville. She explores relationships on a couple of tunes. Yosemite is a duet with Dave Matthews. It’s ironic among road trip songs, which tend to be about good times and new adventures. This one is about a road trip by a couple who incorrectly assume a vacation will rekindle their relationship. Instead, it’s a long uncomfortable car ride they both wish would end. More Like a River is a classic love song. It celebrates enduring love that rolls on and carries you, like a river, as opposed to being marked by trinkets and flowers and temporary things.
Tuttle says that growing up, she was concerned about what might happen to women’s rights. Goodbye Mary takes on the topic of women’s reproductive freedom. It is a heartbreaking story of a pregnant woman in an abusive relationship who is unable to make her own decisions about what to do. It is based, in part, on a friend of Molly’s grandmother.
This is a well-deserved spotlight moment for Molly Tuttle. By all accounts, we expect it to last quite a while… Like enduring love… like a river.