REVIEW: Molly Tuttle “Crooked Tree”


Molly Tuttle — Crooked Tree

Bluegrass music has damn near gone mainstream over the past decade. A genre known for its musicianship and its provincialism has burst beyond the borders of the rural South to headlining festivals, selling out multiple nights at places like Red Rocks, and giving richly talented folks the center stage they deserve. Sometimes, though, in the jammy-ness of it all, songcraft has been pushed aside. Guitar whiz Molly Tuttle, who’s always danced around the edges of bluegrass with her playing, now brings her songwriting chops (and a van full of talented friends) to her new album, Crooked Tree. The tight songwriting, along with her band Golden Highway, keep the musical passion in bluegrass while also allowing her storytelling gift to remain sharply focused.

Crooked Tree is a potent mix of tales of young women on the rise and traditional country storytelling. The first track, “She’ll Change,” features the former, bent on carving an unpredictable path through life – “One woman many wonders/One road many ways” – and features fantastic Dobro/mandolin (from co-producer Jerry Douglas and Dominick Leslie) interplay to supplement Tuttle’s always-excellent licks.

The title track celebrates the odd and the imperfect tree (akin, perhaps, to a woman standing tall in a male-dominated musical genre) – “They’re left to grow wild and free/Oh I’d rather be a crooked tree) – and sports fantastic fiddle work from Jason Carter and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes.

And “Goodbye Girl” jaunts along with a country girl intent on seeing the entire world, consequences be damned – You say you’d like to know her/And she thinks you’re alright/But she’ll be a hundred miles from here/This time tomorrow night.” All of the musicians get a quick take at starring on this track – fiddle, mando, banjo, Dobro and guitar – and that’s one of the wonders of the album; the songs are tight (most well short of four minutes), but the players all get to show their chops without forsaking the song.

Old-school country topics are also well-represented. There’s a murder ballad (“The River Knows”), a slog on Nashville, a town which seems to have never changed its slickness (“Nashville Mess Around”), and a requiem for a home that HAS changed (“San Francisco Blues,” featuring vocals from Dan Tyminski).

And, suitably, the best moments from the album come from both the young women and the traditional perspective. The latter, with a narrative twist (one of many on the record), comes in “Dooley’s Farm,” a guitar/vocal duet with fellow young bluegrasser Billy Strings. A sequel of sorts to the Dillards’ “Dooley” finds the old tobacco farm graduating from moonshine to pot – “But if you ask to buy a jug of sorghum/He’ll know exactly what you mean” (and, of course, the guitar play between the two aces is straight white lightning).

“Grass Valley,” though, is Tuttle’s own origin story. Prompted by visits to bluegrass festivals as a child, Tuttle knew what she wanted to do at a young age. Now, as a grown-up, and with her father contributing vocals to the tune, she realizes that it’s her turn to inspire – “A shy kid with a mandolin/I can see her on the sidelines staring at me/She looks just like I did.” We, as listeners, all have a show or two that we feel changed our lives. Check out Molly Tuttle – she may just change yours.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Dooley’s Farm” – a slow burn, a good story, fiery guitar work and a twist at the end.

Crooked Tree was produced by Jerry Douglas and Molly Tuttle, engineered and mixed by Sean Sullivan and mastered by Paul Blakemore. All songs written by Tuttle with Ketch Secor, Melody Walker, Steve Poltz, Becky Buller and Mark Simos. Additional musicians on the album include Jerry Douglas (Dobro, harmony vocals), Ron Block (banjo, harmony vocals), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Jason Carter (fiddle), Mike Bub (uptight bass), Tina Adair (harmony vocals), Margo Price (vocals), Billy Strings (vocals, guitar), Christian Sedelmyer (fiddle), Viktor Krauss (upright bass), Ketch Secor (vocals, fiddle), Morgan Jahnig (upright bass, harmony vocals), Cory Younts (harmonica, harmony vocals), Jerry Pentecost (drums, percussion, harmony vocals), Mike Harris (banjo, harmony vocals), Mason Via (mandolin, guitjo, harmony vocals), Melody Walker (harmony vocals), Lindsay Lou (harmony vocals), Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Darol Anger (fiddle), Sierra Hull (mandolin), Dan Tyminski (vocals), Todd Phillips (upright bass), Gillian Welch (vocals) and Jack Tuttle (vocals).

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