One of the most compelling new voices in the roots music world, Molly Tuttle is a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter with a lifelong love of bluegrass, a genre the Northern California-bred artist first discovered thanks to her father (a music teacher and multi-instrumentalist) and grandfather (a banjo player whose Illinois farm she visited often throughout her childhood). On her new album Crooked Tree, Tuttle joyfully explores that rich history with bluegrass, bringing her imagination to tales of free spirits and outlaws, weed farmers and cowgirls resulting in a record that is both forward-thinking and steeped in bluegrass heritage.
“I always knew I wanted to make a bluegrass record someday,” says the Nashville-based Tuttle, who began attending bluegrass jams at age eleven. “Once I started writing, everything flowed so easily: sometimes I’ve felt an internal pressure to come up with a sound no one’s heard before, but this time my intention was just to make an album that reflected the music that’s been passed down through generations in my family. I found a way to do that while writing songs that feel true to who I am, and it really helped me to grow as a songwriter.”
Her debut release for Nonesuch Records, Crooked Tree is co-produced by Tuttle and bluegrass legend Jerry Douglas (who also plays Dobro throughout the album); her studio band also includes esteemed musicians like Ron Block (banjo, guitar, harmony vocals), Mike Bub (upright bass), Jason Carter (fiddle), Tina Adair (harmony vocals), and Dominick Leslie,a mandolinist who also performs in Tuttle’s live band, Golden Highway, along with banjo player Kyle Tuttle, fiddle player Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, and bassist Shelby Means. The album features such illustrious guests as Gillian Welch, Margo Price, Billy Strings, Old Crow Medicine Show, Dan Tyminski, and Sierra Hull. Crooked Tree marks a departure from the eclecticism of Tuttle’s critically lauded 2019 full-length debut When You’re Ready and 2020’s ...but i’d rather be with you (a covers album that masterfully reinterprets everyone from FKA Twigs to Karen Dalton). Each track showcases Tuttle’s guitar technique, for which she was the first women ever named Guitar Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, as well as her voice—an instrument that shifts from warmly understated to fiercely soulful with equal parts precision and abandon, occasionally treating the listener to some high-spirited yodeling.
Recorded live at Nashville’s Oceanway Studios, Crooked Tree simultaneously honors the bluegrass tradition and pushes the genre into new directions, particularly in its lyrical content. To that end, the album’s freewheeling yet incisive title track references a bit of wisdom once shared by Tom Waits. “There’s a quote where he talks about how a crooked tree might look strange, but in the end, it’s still growing strong after all the other trees get chopped down,” says Tuttle. “I wrote that song partly thinking about all the clear-cutting of forests where I grew up, but it also encapsulates how I feel sometimes with my music. It’s about carving your own path, taking the road less traveled, and not being afraid to do the unexpected.”
Tuttle, who names female bluegrass pioneers like Hazel Dickens among her most enduring touchstones,sings the praises of wild-hearted women throughout Crooked Tree. On the album-opening “She’ll Change,” for instance, her vocals take on a breakneck momentum as she pays homage to the type of woman who fully owns her unabashed complexity. “I’d just covered ‘She’s a Rainbow’ by the Rolling Stones on my last album, and I wanted to write my own song that gives me that same feeling of celebrating femininity,” notes Tuttle, who co-wrote “She’ll Change” with Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor.
Haunting and hypnotic, “The River Knows” quietly subverts the classic murder ballad, while “Side Saddle” (featuring Gillian Welch) is a defiant anthem of resistance. “It’s about being a cowgirl, but it’s also about how I sometimes feel about being a female guitar player, where I just want to be taken seriously for what I do instead of having this extra attention on me as the only woman in the room,” Tuttle explains.
And on “Castilleja,” Tuttle delivers a moody and mysterious outlaw song spotlighting her talent as a storyteller (from the chorus: “I promised you the gold in California/On a painted horse with reins of silver thread/But if I can’t steal your heart Castilleja/I’ll ghost this world long after I’m dead”).
From song to song on Crooked Tree, Tuttle proves her gift for introducing a contemporary sensibility to a musical tradition many decades old. One of the album’s most piercing and timely tracks, “San Francisco Blues” (featuring Dan Tyminski) takes the form of a sweetly sorrowful waltz, its lyrics threaded with delicate commentary on the ravages of late capitalism. “It’s about how the Bay Area used to be such a thriving artistic scene, but now it’s become almost impossible for musicians, or really most people at all, to afford to live there,” says Tuttle.
A more lighthearted but no less gripping portrait of the modern world, the gorgeously scorching “Dooley’s Farm” (featuring Billy Strings) reimagines The Dillards’ bluegrass classic “Dooley”—this time casting the title character as a cannabis farmer (sample lyric: “He’ll meet you in the back of the woods at midnight/Bring a lantern cause it’s hard to find/He’s got a strain that’ll punch your lights out/Old Dooley’s gonna blow your mind”). “In the original version Dooley’s a moonshiner, so Ketch and I thought it would be fun to update his story and make him a different kind of outlaw,” says Tuttle, who co-wrote about half the songs on Crooked Tree with Secor.