photos and review by Michael J Bialas
Need a cure for the Wintertime Blues? Nashville-based singer-songwriter and crosspickin’-and-grinnin’ guitarist Molly Tuttle is bringing the heat during a 2022 concert tour after constructing her own Golden Highway, a bluegrass band built for speed, mastery and power performance.
Tuttle and her new four-member crew — Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Shelby Means (bass), Kyle (no relation) Tuttle (banjo) and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle) — stormed into Boulder’s Fox Theatre on February 27 to conclude a series of Colorado stops as the area was finally thawing out from one of the chilliest streaks — about 120 consecutive hours of sub-freezing conditions — in recent memory.
It could have been worse … which it was for Tuttle and her band the previous day at the Steamboat Springs ski resort, where, she reported, they played outside for 1 hour, 15 minutes at Winter Wondergrass as the temperature hovered around 15 degrees. “I think my guitar is still recovering,” she told the Boulder crowd. “But none of our instruments exploded from the cold. … [They] made it here in one piece.”
Not only did the instruments and their accompanying players survive, they all thrived under the Fox lights. In almost three hours of impeccable musicianship, the two acts’ nearly flawless shows seemingly went off without a hitch as strings or other musical gear remained intact (Tuttle did make a late switch to her backup guitar).
It all began promptly at 9 p.m., when the Denver-based Jack Cloonan Band began warming up the crowd with 30 minutes of folksy twang (and a boppin’ bunch of bongos). Then on a sleepy Sunday night when many Coloradans most likely were already ducking under the covers, Tuttle and Co. took over to deliver a trailblazing set of more than 20 budding bluegrass numbers, 10 of which were tracks from Crooked Tree, her upcoming Nonesuch Records debut arriving on April 1.
Though she’s a native Northern Californian who excels at running the gamut of styles, Tuttle is currently taking a full-on excursion into bluegrass. In a way, this album and tour signal a return to her roots. Her father Jack Tuttle, a multi-instrumentalist and music teacher who was taught to play by his banjo-picking pop on the family’s Illinois farm before he moved to the Bay Area in 1979, let Molly grow knee-deep into the genre.
Jack’s daughter may have lost patience with the fiddle and piano as a young child, but she was 8 when the guitar struck a chord, with a Baby Taylor gift from dad further boosting her interest. Two years later, Jack brought Molly to her first music festival. Those “early musical memories” that included late night jamming at the event just outside Nevada City, California, inspired her to write “Grass Valley.” Fittingly, Jack sings along on the album’s closing track.
It was jamgrass for the hippies / Old stuff from the fifties / Just about nothing in between
Lyrics from Molly Tuttle’s “Grass Valley”
So Tuttle puts a personal twist on that song, writing or co-writing all 13 for Crooked Tree while co-producing with dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas. Displaying an enduring, brilliant smile and earnest generosity by featuring her bandmates’ musical prowess throughout the 105-minute set that included a three-song encore, Tuttle seems tucked comfortably into her natural-born element as a fire starter made to make this kind of music. Also an expression of that comfort and joy was the band’s casual wardrobe, though the women’s white boots certainly kicked it up a notch.
While most of the album selections were some of the best of the night, Tuttle also pulled a few glimmering gems out of her mixed bag of picks. Paying tribute to a wide array of musical pacesetters or influences on … but I’d rather be with you, her 2020 pandemic covers album made during quarantine from the bedroom of her East Nashville home, Tuttle unearthed buried treasure with two golden oldies chosen for the Fox set list. Her rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” is a bluegrass beauty that Mick and Keith should absolutely adore. Forty minutes later, Rancid’s “Olympia, WA” took Tuttle back to those days as a pre-teen seventh grader in a middle school rock outfit playing songs by her favorite band at the time.
One cheerful cover that she apparently hasn’t released (yet) — John Hartford’s “Up On the Hill Where They Do the Boogie” — was silly putty shaped zestfully by plucky Kyle Tuttle. The native Georgian (and International Banjo Champion) based in Nashville since 2012 handled the heavy lifting with lead vocals and an energetic performance on this slap-happy song, matching his introduction of their supporting act’s frontman:
“You know everybody’s got a little bit of weird in ’em. Some people got a little more in ’em than some other people. And this is our friend Jack Cloonan, so … (cheers, applause) let’s get weird, huh?”
Molly Tuttle, who seemed to enjoy that side trip into Wild, Wild West World, had no trouble keeping Golden Highway on track throughout the night while also drawing from past recordings. There were selections from 2017’s Rise EP (“Good Enough,” “Super Moon” and instantaneous crowd-pleaser “Friend and a Friend,” thanks to the artistry of Keith-Hynes, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2021 Fiddle Player of the Year). Just as impactful were “Light Came In (Power Went Out)” and “Take the Journey,” a pair of pulsating power-lifting cuts from 2019’s When You’re Ready, Tuttle’s first solo album. Those five songs alone proved worthy of holding their own in the hands of a wizard pulling the strings while hitting her stride with Crooked Tree. The album and song titles were inspired by a Tom Waits quote that resonated with Tuttle “because I feel like a crooked tree a lot of the time.”
Oh can’t you see? / A crooked tree won’t fit into the mill machine / They’re left to grow wild and free / I’d rather be a crooked tree
Lyrics from Molly Tuttle’s title track
Among the many more album highlights performed at the Fox (including comments from Tuttle and her bandmates) were:
● “Nashville Mess Around”: Lively and lightning-quick, it was elevated by fine harmonies from Means and Kyle Tuttle, along with a bit of yodeling and fast-paced guitar pickin’ by the frontwoman, who during her song intro encouraged the audience to “do a little two-stepping.”
● “San Francisco Blues” (with guest vocalist Dan Tyminski on the album): “I love the area but so many of my friends and I have had to move away because it’s gotten so expensive to live there. I think that’s happened in a lot of places around the country,” shared Tuttle about the Bay Area she once called home. The live version of the tender ballad concludes with a lovely mandolin outro by Leslie, who also plays on the album and earned a shout-out from Tuttle for his Colorado heritage. After Leslie expressed, “It’s so great to be back in my homeland,” the sought-after artist and Hawktail member currently based in Nashville heard a more specific locale from a voice in the crowd, leading Tuttle to exclaim, “Evergreen, Colorado, in the house!”
● “Dooley’s Farm” (with guitar whiz and guest vocalist Billy Strings on the album): As a kid who enjoyed listening to the Dillards’ “Dooley,” about “an old moonshiner living in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Tuttle wanted to update the character. She did it with one of the album’s catchiest songs after delivering this vox populi line that also drew a few laughs in one of the state’s hot pot spots: “Down South, we just can’t walk down the road to a dispensary. We gotta get the good stuff the old-fashioned way.”
● “Side Saddle” (with guest vocalist Gillian Welch on the album): This fun romp was introduced by Means, the band’s upright bassist and backing vocalist who grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, just north of the Colorado border. “We’re the Cowboy State there,” Means noted. “So I think we’re gonna sing a cowboy song, kind of in honor of that. And just a little bit of a fun tidbit: My mom [a spectator at the show] was a rodeo queen. I got the cowgirl genes in my jeans.”
● “Big Backyard” (with Old Crow Medicine Show playing and singing on the album, along with Douglas): Tuttle and her quartet, sounding like a million bucks, gathered near the front of the stage huddled in a semicircle for the grand finale, an ode to Woody Guthrie and “This Land Is You Land” that she co-wrote with Old Crow frontman Ketch Secor about “all the beautiful lands throughout this country.”
The cozy campfire-like feel and singalong lyrics — “Come on out to the big backyard / It ain’t mine it ain’t yours it’s all of ours” — produced enough sparks to light the torch. Now pass it on to Tuttle, the first woman honored as IBMA Guitar Player of the Year. After all, some of her pioneering heroes (Hazel Dickens, Tony Rice) and heavyweight roots collaborators (Welch, Douglas, etc.) were impressive torchbearers during their career years.
Perhaps as one of this decade’s brightest guiding lights of Americana, Tuttle can continue to lead any fellow Americans out of the figurative deep freeze with ease while her tour with Golden Highway winds through the Midwest this week. By the time they reach the Deep South heading past April’s release day, expect the admiration for Crooked Tree to be at a spring-fever pitch.