Kentucky is the home of bluegrass music. On that we all agree. And it don’t matter who’s in Nashville, Jimmy Martin is still the King. But by the early 1960s, the seeds of bluegrass had formed deep roots on the West Coast. Many of the sounds were the same, but these Californians sang what they knew about. Whereas back east it was coal being pulled out of the mountains, in California it was gold. Where moonshine made up the the majority of contraband in Kentucky, in Northern California it was cannabis.
With her second entry into her Golden Highway era, Grammy-winning flat picking maestro Molly Tuttle takes her well-studied and technically-flawless traditional bluegrass approach, and instills it with lyricism about the stuff she knows about as a native Californian. This means the 13 tracks of City of Gold include some Western tales, a little bit of love, and a quite a bit of weed and other wild things. Bill Monroe would only partially approve, but many bluegrass fans of today will find it right in their wheelhouse.
The song “San Joaquin” is about selling marijuana in California’s interior valley, and incidentally features the album’s most blazing instrumentation. “Down Home Dispensary” is an open letter to elected officials in Tennessee advocating for legalization, or at least a medicinal exception. “Alice in the Bluegrass” is sort of a reimagination of Alice in Wonderland, and dovetails in with Tuttle’s recent interpretation of Grace Slick and “White Rabbit.”
Is this a drug themed album? Not in its entirety. But true to its theme of a California bluegrass album, reefer plays a significant role. So do a lot of Western-style songs like “El Dorado” with its cast of 1800s characters, and the cowboy allusions in “Next Rodeo.” Tuttle and co-writer Ketch Secor do a really savvy job on “Goodbye Mary” by broaching a present day issue, but through an old time writing style and story, instilling it with a sepia hue and Gothic mood like a murder ballad.
Beyond the working relationship, perhaps the romantic relationship between Ketch Secor and Molly Tuttle is the inspiration behind the rumination on lasting love that is “More Like a River,” which is also one of the album’s best-written tracks. Molly makes you wonder if the last song called “The First Time I Fell in Love” is about self-empowerment and affirmation, or straight up masturbation, or perhaps both. Molly certainly infuses this album with some adult themes.
At the same time, some of the lyrics can feel a little hokey in that old-timey Old Crow Medicine Show way as opposed to the more inspired and introspective moments that pervaded Molly’s last record, the Grammy-winning Crooked Tree. The folksy attitude arguably might result in a wider audience for the new album and more accessible songs, but it may hold it slightly back from some of the similar critical acclaim that Crooked Tree received. We’ll have to see.
What makes City of Gold a bit more cool though is instead of using a cast of hired gun musicians like the last time, Molly Tuttle and co-producer Jerry Douglas work entirely with Molly’s Golden Highway touring band that includes mandolinist Dominick Leslie, banjo player Kyle Tuttle (no relation), fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes who also won the IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year in 2022, and bassist Shelby Means who helped co-write “Last Rodeo” on the album.
City of Gold is a Western bluegrass album that is unafraid of broaching the subjects that are actually relevant to many bluegrass fans of today while stretching the sonic limits of the genre ever so slightly in spots. But the album also still minds many of the tenets of bluegrass set up by Bill Monroe and the oldtimers, resulting in a bold, spicy, but still authentic bluegrass work told from the perspective of a solid gold bluegrass phenom from California.
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