Molly Tuttle at Knoxville, Tennessee’s Summer Sessions
by John Job
One Woman, Many Wonders
When you’re at the top of the pyramid in the live bluegrass concert business, the best venues and the best festivals in the country line up and beg you to accept their invitations to perform. You can spent your summers hopping from Red Rocks to Kerrville, to Merlefest and Bonnaroo, Wolf Trap and Newport.
But if you’ve fostered good relationships with the presenters in small towns and state fairs that dot the countryside, the folks who gave you your first opportunities to succeed, you see a whole ‘nother world out on the road.
This is about a small town 20 miles northwest of Knoxville, where the local nonprofit credit union has been footing the bill to bring some of the best bluegrass and Americana touring acts to town for 5 years, to play free concerts in the back yard of the town’s public library. They call it the Summer Sessions. Sometimes 500 people show up with their folding beach chairs. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
Here’s what happened on August 20th, 2022, when Molly Tuttle came to town and played to nearly 2000 Tennesseans who hung on every blistering note.
ORNL Federal Credit Union (which derives its name from the famed Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee but is not part of the Lab in any sense) teamed up with radio station WDVX-FM in Knoxville several years ago to put together this free concert series to spice up the sleepy summer evenings in Oak Ridge, a town of 25,000 or so, mostly retirees.
Banking on WDVX’s 20 years of concert presentation experience and extensive contacts with everybody who’s anybody in bluegrass, Americana, and country music, Summer Sessions has made a name for itself mixing local talents like the Alex Leach Band and Bill & The Belles with nationally-known acts like the Travelin’ McCourys, Jim Lauderdale, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Dan Tyminski, and Sierra Hull.
The venue is an odd-looking but very serviceable two-sided permanent stage covered by a tensioned canopy. One side faces south to a pleasantly sloped grassy amphitheater used primarily by the community band on the Fourth of July and Labor Day, nestled snugly between the town’s art center and the police station. A wall divides the double stage in the middle, and the north-facing side looks out to a semi-circular concrete pad that can comfortably accomodate probably 800 upright folding chairs in curved rows. Beyond and to either side of the pad is a flat lawn, pin oaks, giant ash and red gum trees, a creek, and the central plaza of the Oak Ridge Civic Center, a complex of brutally modern molded-concrete buildings grouped around a fountain and gardens… the public library, meeting and exhibit spaces, a basketball gym and indoor pool. When it opened in 1970, it seemed futuristic. 50+ years later, it still sorta does.
The shows begin at 6:00 pm sharp and conclude around 9:00, so lighting isn’t a big concern. Sound is a lot trickier. On-stage and house sound are handled by an extremely versatile engineer named Jonathan Maness and his company, AnteFlow. The crew is made up of his audio students at Pellissippi State Community College.
Jonathan is one of the unflappable sound guys who handle Knoxville’s world-renowned Big Ears Festival every March, when the coolest city in America stages more than 200 alt music concerts in the span of four days, from Bill Frisell to the Kronos Quartet, from Ellen Reid to Aroof Aftab. Jonathan and his wife Wendy are also Americana-esque performers themselves, good enough to open for any of the big names that play the Summer Sessions.
The civic center’s parking lots bring concert-goers to within 100 yards of the Summer Sessions stage. Easy ingress and egress. There are usually half a dozen food trucks, an artisanal brewer or two, ice cream… It’s as laid back as a family picnic.
The fourth concert in the 2022 Summer Sessions series began promisingly enough with an opening act surprise by a quartet from Boston called Barnstar! Nobody had ever heard of them. And they were a perfect fit for the occasion.
I was backstage with them before they went out to play, and Tony Lawson,program director from WDVX, asked how they would like to be introduced. They said “Just don’t mention that we’re from Boston. Let us get a few songs into our set, and then we’ll tell them that. We don’t want an audience from Bluegrass Country to be prejudiced by the place we call home.”
I don’t know why these guys thought anyone would be prejudiced against Boston. Every person in Molly Tuttle’s band, including Molly, went to school in Boston at The Berklee College of Music.
Boston’s where I first saw Doc Watson, Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys, Maria Muldaur, Tom Rush, Taj Mahal, Judy Collins, Jonathan Edwards, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and plenty of other Americana stalwarts. Americana music may never have evolved as strongly as it has without clubs like Passim’s in Harvard Square.
Barnstar! slowly won over the Bissell Park audience as it continued to grow in anticipation of Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway. Mark Erelli on guitar, Zachariah Hickman on bass, Jake Armerding on fiddle, and Taylor Armerding on mandolin made themselves quite at home with a thoroughly entertaining set of mostly original songs that ranged from “Subpoenaed in Texas, Sequestered in Memphis” to “Build It Up With Jesus,” which was introduced as a parable about one man who built his house on a rock foundation and another who built his house on Cape Cod. Then they worried out loud that maybe nobody got the joke.
Barnstar! flew all the way down from Boston for one show, to open for Molly Tuttle in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. What does that tell you? Four great guys, excellent musicians, soaring harmonizing singers, witty, warm, and glad to be here. I hope Summer Sessions brings them back. This was actually bassist Hickman’s second appearance in Oak Ridge. Two years ago he was (as he described it) the handsome young bass player with Rodney Crowell.
Molly Tuttle’s set list, taped to the concrete surface of the huge canopied stage at Bissell Park, listed 21 songs. It could easily have been a two-hour performance. And the biggest Summer Sessions audience this season was electrified with expectations when the band came out. Unfortunately, Golden Highway’s mandolinist Dominick Leslie was missing, but the band didn’t miss a beat. That just gave Kyle Tuttle more room to fill with banjo magic.
15 minutes into the show, as Molly sang I was quick / Like a streak of lightning from “Castelleja,” the third song on the set list, we saw the first flashes of lightning from Molly’s eyes and from the towering black clouds crawling in from the Cumberland Plateau. And by the time Golden Highway got to their sixth song on the list, the Rolling Stones’ toy piano classic “Like a Rainbow,” it was a race against the inevitable. When the song was over, so was the show.
In a matter of minutes, the band’s priceless instruments were safely out of the weather, speakers were draped with tarps, power was cut to the sound system, lightning and deeply resonant thunder was shaking the Civic Center’s windows, the huge audience was calmly booking it to their cars, and as I left the venue, the last person still on stage was Molly Tuttle, ready, if only she could, to do the remaining two-thirds of the show she had prepared. She seemed, for obvious reasons, thunder-struck.
It was a shame, and I wish we could have all run across the street to the 1400-seat Performing Arts Center at the high school and listened to her play the rest of the night. Molly and her band only performed six songs, but that, believe it or not, for people who had never seen her play before, was enough to understand the wildly unique talent she possesses.
The first song in their short set was “She’ll Change,” a manifesto she co-wrote with Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show, and it came flying out from the stage like an F-16 off the deck of the USS Independence, a declaration so clear, flat-picking so intricate and assertive, it took your breath away.
If you’re fortunate to love her / Don’t let a moment pass you by / ‘Cause time’s running thin / She’ll be on the move again / Before you even say the word “goodbye.”
She can paint the sun at midnight / Roll out the moon at the break of day / One woman, many wonders / One road, many ways / Just when you think you know her / She’ll change.
Next came “Nashville Mess Around,” another new song from Molly’s 2022 album Crooked Tree, an IBMA candidate for Album of the Year. It’s a silly song, really, about a guy from Wisconsin visiting Nashville to go club hopping, look for babes, and blow his paycheck, in a Nashville that’s changed in the same sorry ways Austin and other formerly hip towns have changed, from town to metropolis. With that kind of set up, I half expected ut to take a really dark turn, like the guy from Fond du Lac getting mugged in an alley behind the Bluebird or the Station Inn. But this tune, filled with textbook bluegrass interplay, is incredibly catchy, with a yodeling riff at the end of the verses that’s a great touch. Made old Don Walser smile, I bet.
Next came “Castelleja,” another collaboration with Ketch Secor. Basically a corrido, named for the Indian paintbrush that proliferates from the Texas Hill Country to the Pacific, it’s a murder ballad, heavy on mystery and an explanation that is only hinted at. It is held together by the silver thread of Molly’s Spanish-tinged musicality, as steady as a cuttin’ horse crossing Death Valley at night.
Then, like a shelf cloud at the front of a derecho, foreshadowing the waves of deep thunder and the cloud-to-ground-to-cloud flashes we were seeing through the stately trees in the park, Golden Highway whirled into Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ brilliant instrumental “Open Water,” from her 2020 album Fiddler’s Pastime. On her album, the tune features Sierra Hull. On stage here, Kyle Tuttle matched Bronwyn’s intense fireworks, and so did Molly, and so did Shelby Means. As the notes boiled faster and faster, I remembered staring into the glowing blue pool at ORNL’s Oak Ridge Research Reactor when I was a kid on a tour of the Lab with my class from Cedar Hill Elementary, imagining the invisible activity it contained, the energy, the speed, the particles, the power. That’s where the four musicians on that stage sent me… to “Open Water.” They turned that uniquely-shaped stage enclosure into a reactor.
After that came “The River Knows,” a song from Crooked Tree that’s just plain spooky. There’s a boy and girl who grew up together. He wanted her. She didn’t want him. He ran off into the hills to make moonshine. One night she made the mistake of drinking with him. He made the bigger mistake of tryin’ something she didn’t want. And that’s all she wrote. Last thing you learn is that she had to rinse the blood out of her hair with river water.
By this time, everybody involved with the concert’s production end was scrambling to decide what to do, because thunder was shaking the trees. The band didn’t wait, sliding into their bluegrassy cover of “She’s a Rainbow,” the most inscrutable Rolling Stones recording ever, a rock song equivalent of a Peter Max poster. In Molly Tuttle’s hands, it was at least musically suspenseful. Until lightning got too close.
I was the lighting director for the dance company MOMIX back in the day, and I would love, LOVE, to light a full concert by Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway on the ORHS Performing Arts Center stage. And not with the god-awful LED systems you can’t escape now. I want 1980’s fresnels and lekos with incandescent bulbs, 50 of each, and real gels for color, and a hand operated dimmer console. I could make the visual impact of this band as awesome as their music. Seeing them outdoors was great, but there’s a theatrical treasure here that no outdoor venue can reveal.
Maybe next year.
Next up for Summer Sessions, it’s the Songs From The Road Band from Asheville, plus the Henhouse Prowlers from Chicago, two bands that are completely unique. A very interesting booking.