Updated: Jan 5
Molly Tuttle is on fire. It wasn't that long ago that Molly won the 2016 IBMA Momentum Award for up-and-coming artists and the Instrumentalist of the Year award. The following year, she was awarded the 2017 IBMA Award for Guitarist of the Year, the first-ever woman to receive that award. In 2018 she received the award again along with the Collaborative Recording of the Year award for Swept Away, an album she recorded with Alison Brown, Becky Buller, and Sierra Hull. The Americana Music Association named Molly the Instrumentalist of the Year that same year.
So, it was no surprise that in 2022, Molly was nominated for five IBMA awards, and at the awards gala in late September, she walked away with the Female Vocalist of the Year trophy. The same night Molly was on stage at the North Carolina Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh more than she was off it. She played "My Bluegrass Heart" with Bela' Fleck, "Walls of Time" with Peter Rowan, and "Crooked Tree" with her band, Golden Highway, the title cut of her third and latest album.
Molly describes Crooked Tree, her debut release for Nonesuch Records, as her dream bluegrass album. Born and raised in San Francisco, Molly now makes Nashville her home, and it is in Nashville that she has met many of her bluegrass heroes. "I decided I would ask some of them to join me on this album, and to my delight, they did. I wanted to make all original songs for this album because I felt a void in bluegrass for people like me."
Molly has had a lifelong love of bluegrass, thanks to her father, a music teacher, and multi-instrumentalist, and her banjo player grandfather, who lived on a farm in Illinois, a place Molly often visited during her childhood. Molly's dad listened to bluegrass albums at home and took Molly to many bluegrass festivals when she was young.
Growing up in the California bluegrass scene, Molly says she and her friend Melody Walker felt different. "I developed alopecia as a kid and lost all my hair. Melody had scoliosis and wore a back brace. I guess you could say she was like a crooked tree, the song we co-wrote together." Based on a quote by Tom Waits where he talks about how a crooked tree might look strange, but in the end, it's still growing after all the other trees get chopped down, Molly says she wrote the song while thinking about the clear-cutting of forests where she grew up. "I also thought about carving your path in life and taking the road less traveled. I want to encourage people not to be afraid to do the unexpected."
Her live band, Golden Highway, includes Dominick Leslie, Kyle Tuttle, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, and Shelby Means. Still, the album also features her studio band, including Jerry Douglas (who also produced the album), Ron Block, Mike Bub, Jason Carter, and Tina Adair. She was also joined on the album by Billy Strings, Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch, Margo Price, Dan Tyminski, and Sierra Hull. "It has been so inspiring working with such incredible artists. I'm excited that bluegrass music is going through a real resurgence now." While nodding traditional bluegrass stylings, this album is uniquely Molly, with poignant and personal lyrics. Each album track showcases Molly's guitar skills and vocals for which she has been recognized. There is a thread of wild-hearted women throughout Crooked Tree, especially during the album's opening song, "She'll Change," which she co-wrote with Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor. In the song "Side Saddle," featuring Gillian Welch, Molly writes about being a cowgirl, but she says it is also about how she feels about being a female guitar player. "There is some defiance," she admits. "I just want to be taken seriously for what I do instead of getting attention for being the only woman in the room."
Especially personal is the final track of the album, "Grass Valley," an autobiographical look back on going to bluegrass festivals with her father. She had the idea to have her dad sing on the song, which became one of her favorites on the album.
For now, Molly says she's taking time off the road and planning her next record. "I don't want to give it away; it's more fun to keep people guessing," she says. "I will be releasing some new stuff not too long from now. But first, I have to get ready for the GRAMMY Awards," which has nominated Molly in two categories, Best New Artist and Best Bluegrass Album for Crooked Tree.
To repeat—Molly Tuttle is still on fire—and that flame ain't going out any time soon.
All photos were taken at The Center For The Arts on January 25, 2022.