For quite a few years in her burgeoning career, Molly Tuttle kept her bluegrass side and her singer-songwriter side at a slight remove from one another, unsure of how to write the more personal material she wanted to sing and have it completely fit in with the world in which she’d grown up as a guitar-picking prodigy. She finally successfully married the two realms with her 2022 album “Crooked Tree,” which, although it was her fourth major release, felt like a new beginning for Tuttle.
It definitely felt like a new beginning to the Recording Academy, which gave her a best new artist nomination on top of a nod for best bluegrass album. If she feels slightly like an odd woman out in the new artist category, well, so do nearly all of the 10 nominees in that all-genre division, where anything goes in 2023 — jazz, rap, rock, more jazz and, yes, getting a big look in a top category for the first time since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” bluegrass. It’s especially a surprise in a year in which no other roots-based artist, not even someone from the world of mainstream country, got a similar nod.
Variety sat with Tuttle while she passed through L.A. recently to perform on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night show, getting filled in on everything from her very unique guitar picking style to how the Grateful Dead’s influence factored into her Bay Area upbringing, to living — and thriving — with alopecia, to, of course, the Grammys cosigning on the love she already gets from the Americana world.
You aren’t taking it as a slight if the Grammys consider you a new artist after already having a bunch of records out, right? You won the Momentum Award at the International Bluegrass Music Awards back in 2016, and released your first solo EP in 2017.
No. This felt like kind of a first record for me. I was going in a different direction and almost kind of restarting in a way. with this new band. I even came up with a new band name, Golden Highway, and so it did kind of feel like I was beginning again with something new.
How were you able to use “Crooked Tree” to kind of reconcile these sides of yourself? You’re known for your instrumental prowess in the bluegrass world, but the records up until this one had touches of that style, more than really leaning hard into it.
I grew up with bluegrass and always kind of wanted to make a full bluegrass record of my own. But growing up in California and listening to all these other styles of music, I didn’t naturally just start writing bluegrass songs right away. A lot of the songs I grew up with were written about growing up in Kentucky and Tennessee and all these places that seemed really far away to me as a kid. And I just didn’t resonate with the stories personally in bluegrass songs that I heard. So this was a balance of finding the language that felt authentic to the genre, but still finding ways to weave in my story as well.
During the pandemic, I was feeling a little creatively stuck. I ended up writing a lot of the songs with Ketch Secor [of Old Crow Medicine Show], and he really encouraged me to lean into my bluegrass identity. And I ended up reconnecting with a friend, Melody Walker, who I grew up with out in California. We both kind of grew up in the bluegrass scene and I wrote a lot of the songs with her for the album as well. I was finding this community of people who were really supporting this project, and the songs just started flowing. The timing aligned and I felt creatively like I was finally figuring out a way to tell my story in songs that felt really in the bluegrass vein.
Has it felt like there was any kind of split between doing the exciting live show people might expect out of a master guitarist versus doing more reflective records, when you first came out of the gate?
I think I’ve always kind of wanted to find a way to merge the two — or many — worlds that I grew up listening to. I love the idea of putting a bluegrass solo in a singer-songwriter song, or taking my guitar playing and reframing it with other instruments that you might not expect. I’ve always been really interested in kind of merging genres and just breaking down those barriers.
I do think there is a part of my audience that comes to the show to see fast, technical instrumental stuff. and when I started out writing songs, I was writing more ballads. I think a lot of songwriters start out gravitating toward slower songs that are more personal lyrics. At least that’s how it was for me: I was writing stuff just about my feelings and ended up writing a lot of slower songs. With this last album, I figured out more ways to write story songs and write songs that were more fun and playful and just had a more upbeat nature to the lyrics and to the music aspects of it.
Do you feel like you changed your lyrical style somehow to move it a little bit more toward bluegrass? Or did you just find a way to make bluegrass come to you?
[Laughs.] I think it was a little of both. Bluegrass does have these set song forms that I played with a little bit. Like, I have a couple songs that have bridges in them, and with traditional bluegrass songs, you don’t hear a lot of bridges. It’s usually verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse — very set structure. very simple chords, usually only three or four chords. And then you have these different styles of songs, and that was the fun part for me was thinking about like, OK, what kind of traditions of songs do I want to weave into my album? Like, there’s the kind of slow, modal, bluesy song. I feel like I got that with “Dooley’s Farm.” You hear bluegrass songs that are a little more swingy and playful, and I wrote “Side Saddle” that ended up being in that vein. And I always like to work in clawhammer guitar playing, because that’s something I do that I don’t hear a lot of other people doing. So I wrote a song “The River Knows” and was able to work up that one with claw hammer guitar. Then you have like the kind of barn-burner ones — for me, that was “Over the Line,” where everyone just kind of gets to rip solos, because it’s fast and exciting.
There seems to be a resurgence with young people getting excited about bluegrass, or at least some of the jam-band offshoots of it.
I feel like bluegrass is kind of having a moment with people like Billy Strings playing to massive audiences. I felt really lucky to be part of Bela Fleck’s last album, which was kind of him returning to bluegrass as well, making this album “My Bluegrass Heart” that won a Grammy and a bunch of awards. People kind of returning to this rootsier sound seems to happen every however many years. When I was a kid, it was “O Brother Where Art Thou?” that was so popular and won a bunch of Grammys, the soundtrack. The pendulum kind of swings back in this direction every so often. And it does feel like we’re having a moment right now, which is exciting, where people are kind of reframing the music. I feel like hearing a great performer, like Billy Strings, it doesn’t matter what genre he’s playing, it’s gonna translate to people no matter what.
Oddly, as popular as musicians like the late guitarist Tony Rice have been, guitar is not the first instrument people always think of when they think of bluegrass.
When you listen to the early bluegrass recordings, you don’t hear very much lead guitar. So it’s kind of like it was come up with after the fact.
What’s the most unusual element of guitar playing or picking you do? You mentioned the clawhammer style.
Yeah, I think that’s probably the most unusual technique that I do, and I know a handful of people who do that. I learned it from this guy in the Bay Area where I grew up, Michael Stadler, a local guitar player who plays a lot of shows and teaches lessons. I was at a music camp where he was teaching a clawhammer guitar workshop, and that’s where I picked up the style. But yeah, I haven’t heard too many people playing clawhammer guitar. I’ve showed it to some people and I’ve kind of like been trying to spread it around a little bit more. But so far it doesn’t seem to be a very popular style of guitar playing.
You’re gonna popularize it as the next big fad for maximum shredding.
I keep trying — I’m like, come on!
Is that related to clawhammer banjo style?
It’s the same thing, just on guitar. So for me it was easy to pick up on, because I already played claw hammer banjo and you’re kind of tuning the guitar like a banjo. So I play in a lot of open tuning when I play clawhammer guitar. It’s pretty much the same technique; I just add in a little more of an aggressive feel to it, where I like snapping the low strings. It sounds a little more percussive than banjo. I play a lot lighter when I play clawhammer banjo.
Do you ever get to play a lot of banjo or is it pretty much almost all guitar?
Pretty much mostly guitar. I always want to play more banjo, and I do get the opportunity to sometimes, but guitar’s always been my first and main instrument. I’m always saying I’m gonna play banjo on one of my records, but now I have Kyle in my band, who’s such a great banjo player, so it’s like, why would I? But I have brought out the banjo a couple times on the road, and we’ve done some double banjo stuff, which is really fun — for me at least. I don’t know if it’s fun for the audience to hear more banjos.
Let’s mention some of the guests you had on the album, including Margo Price, Gillian Welch, Sierra Hull… Margo is many things but not really bluegrass — what do you appreciate about her?
I love just that she is such a strong force in music. She really stands up for what she believes in, and the poetry of her songs is so beautiful to me. The reason I asked her to sing on that song is because she had that album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.” My dad grew up on a farm in Illinois, and her family had a farm in Illinois. My family sold the farm my dad grew up on, and I went back to visit when I was writing the album, and me and my grandma walked around the old farm, and it was so sad to see. The house where they grew up was still there, but all boarded up, with the doors and windows broken and everything overgrown. I just had so many happy memories there as a kid. So when I got back to Nashville, I wrote “Flatland Girl,” about that farm. And it was also kind of just thinking about wanting to tell my story of how I came to play bluegrass music. My grandfather was a banjo player as well as a farmer, and that was so ingrained in my family. He passed down the music to my dad, who taught me how to play. And I knew that Margo also had Illinois farm roots, so I thought I needed to get her to sing on that song.
Gillian Welch sings on “Side Saddle.” That song and the opening song on the album, “She’ll Change,” could be considered feminist anthems, or at least specifically female-themed.
Yeah. I’m super-inspired by songwriters like Gillian Welch and Hazel Dickens, and some of their songs really inspired the songs on my album. Because Hazel Dickens has a lot of kind of these feminist style bluegrass songs that you really didn’t hear that very often in this genre, especially when she was writing music and coming up in the ’70s and ’80s. And then Gillian Welch is just one of my absolute favorite of all time. I’ve probably listened to her albums more than anyone else’s. I sent her a few different songs and she picked “Side Saddle,” which I thought was really fitting because she’s a woman who really inspires me, and that song is a tribute to strong women.
Is “She’ll Change” meant to be taken in the same way, or is it just incidental that it’s a “she” in the title?
When I did my covers record, I covered “She’s a Rainbow” by the Rolling Stones, and I kind of wanted to write my own song in that vein. “She’ll Change” to me felt like a similar sentiment to what I did with “She’s a Rainbow.” I put it first because this album is kind of going in a different direction, and the tag of that song is “Just when you think you know her, she’ll change.” We also put that out as the first single, setting the stage for a new direction.
When you were growing up in California, obviously probably not most of the kids you’re going to school with were not really into traditional music and bluegrass. When your family is sort of established in doing that music, was that difficult? Or was there enough strong bluegrass presence out of California that you identified with that you didn’t spend so much time thinking about not fitting in?
I felt like there was like a very strong bluegrass community where I grew up, and there is so much great bluegrass music that’s come from California and even the Bay Area. My dad moved out to the Bay Area because he loved David Grisman and Tony Rice and all these people who were there throughout the ‘80s/ Even still, there’s so much great music. Peter Rowan is someone who’s lived in California for many years, and you had Old and in the Way and this kind of Grateful Dead influence on the whole region where I grew up. And so a lot of the songs I grew up jamming on were songs people had learned from Jerry Garcia.
But as far as when I was in school, my friends didn’t really think bluegrass was cool, and it made it even less cool to me — I don’t know if people perceive it this way — that I played with my family. It’s like, oh, on top of playing bluegrass, I’m here with my dad and my two little brothers! And so I did kind of like feel shy about sharing that with people when I was in high school and stuff. And then by the end of my years at school, I stopped caring as much, and it was like a journey for me to accept that and be confident.
There were multiple things that made you not the average kid at school — the bluegrass festivals you’d be going to, the playing with your family band, and then having alopecia. And you were proudly going bald at least some of the time. These things might have all caused you to be bolder, across your life, we could guess.
I definitely felt like I tried to fit in in school, but had all these things that made me different. So I guess that’s why with this album, It felt fitting to call it “Crooked Tree,” because it’s like, well, here I am. It’s the kind of music I grew up with. This is who I am.
Where did that title metaphor come from? Of the tree that’s a little bit different than the others and thus doesn’t get cut down.
I don’t know where the quote about the Crooked Tree originated. Me and my friend Melody found it because Tom Waits has this quote about being a crooked tree in something he was in [in the screenplay for a film he acted in, “Wristcutters: A Love Story”]. I’ve heard people say it’s like an ancient quote that nobody really knows where it’s from. But we just wanted to write a whole song about that, because we thought it was such a cool metaphor and both of us really resonated with it. For me, I was thinking a lot about growing up with alopecia and just feeling very different and then learning as an adult to embrace that part of who I am. Melody has had similar experiences with stuff in her life.
On your website, rather than shy away from the subject, you have a whole section about dealing with alopecia — and your webstore even sells a T-shirt with an illustration of you bald, holding up a wig.
That was made by an artist who has alopecia. I love supporting other people who are artistic and have the same condition as me, and also it was to raise money for the National Alopecia Foundation, That has been the most helpful thing for me becoming more confident in myself, because they have this yearly gathering where people from all over the place fly in and you get to hang out with people who also have no hair, which is not something… like, you don’t meet a lot of people with full-on alopecia. A lot of people might get a couple patches of hair loss, but it’s kind of a unique experience to really grow up without hair at all. If I didn’t have a community like that, I don’t know how I would feel about it. That’s when it really opened up things for me, when I found friends who have similar experience.
You’ve had some very stylish wigs, so there is a way in which you’re able to think about it for fashion purposes.
Yeah. It’s just what I like right now. But that doesn’t mean I’m always gonna wear a wig. Because if I look back on my life, I didn’t wear wigs until I was 15, and I’ve worn ’em now for 15 years. So half my life I’ve worn wigs; half my life I haven’t. I’m about to turn 30. I could see maybe this next decade that I might stop wearing wigs as much — or wear crazy wigs.It’s something that’s fun and always evolving for me, just kind of based on what I feel confident in. That’s the message I want to get out to people: It’s OK — you can present yourself however you want. You don’t need to feel ashamed if one day you don’t have the confidence to go out without a wig. That’s OK to wear a wig, and it’s OK to kind of just stay true to yourself and find what feels good for you.
I really admire people who are like unabashedly themselves. I have a lot of friends who have alopecia who would never even consider like covering up their heads with a wig. And I think that’s really amazing, but it doesn’t make me less accepting of myself that I do wear wigs. I do think I’m naturally more introverted, which makes it harder for me to go about my day and have all these questions about why I don’t have hair. I remember as a kid, I got so tired of strangers coming up thinking I had had cancer, and constant questions from other kids, and people trying to pull off my hats if I was wearing hats. I think part of my personality is that I’m a little more kind of introspective and I need my personal space and personal alone time. So that was why I initially gravitated towards wearing wigs — and now I just kind of think they’re really fun.
Going back to the album… direction-wise, with the way “Crooked Tree” turned out, did you feel like: OK, this is the style of songwriting and reporting I wanna continue in? Or was it just a one-time thing and we might adjust things differently next time?
I think for me, my dream is… I chose this new band name, Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, because I wanted to kind of create a foundation for myself that I could come back to. For me it felt really like, here’s my first record with this project, and anytime I want to make another album with this style of music, I can come back to this project and have this for my whole life. And then if I want to do other stuff, I can make solo records in whatever style I want. But it feels really good for me to have a foundation where I’ve kind of made my statement for bluegrass records, and I know I’ll always have that to come back to.
So it could be a thing similar to Alison Krauss, with and without Union Station, where if you see the band moniker on there, you know what style it’s gonna be?
Yeah. That’s kind of what I was imagining. Alison Krauss is someone I really admire and it’s incredible how she really stuck with this sound that she felt so strongly. She has this amazing band, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and I would love to do that with my bluegrass band as well and keep this really unique group of people. When you hear her band, you feel like they’re the only ones that can make that sound. But she also does so much other stuff as well and has crossed into that mainstream area. So she’s someone I definitely look up to. But I do feel like I’ve kind of had to carve my own path with my career and my music. I’s always still evolving and I’m just kind of reacting to what happens and where the muse leads me.
So the next album could be back to… I don’t want to give away too much yet. I am going back into the studio to record very soon.
How have the Grammys changed things already for you, or how do you expect these nominations to alter your career landscape?
I was not expecting it, but it’s really exciting. I think it does open a lot of doors that maybe could have opened anyway eventually, but the Grammy thing kind of speeds up the trajectory, I guess. I’ve never been to the Grammys. I’ve watched them on TV but it’s cool to be in one of the main categories. It’s gonna be surreal to hear my name up there with everyone else’s, but I’m just kind of excited to go and soak it all in and hopefully have fun. That’s the thing for me, I’m trying to relax and take it all in and enjoy the ride.