Album Review – Molly Tuttle’s “Crooked Tree”

Molly Tuttle is one of the greatest guitar players of this current generation from any genre, and has the IBMA Awards to back it up. She’s also one of the fundamental reasons for the resurgence in interest in bluegrass we’re currently experiencing, spirited off the back of young performers like Molly invigorating the music with new life, and new blood.

But up until this point, you’d have to take the word of someone who told you that Molly Tuttle was a force in bluegrass. Aside from her numerous collaborations with others, Molly’s studio efforts were much more oriented to the folk and singer/songwriter realm, even veering more toward indie rock than “Rocky Top.” This is just how her early career took shape, perhaps not wanting to be hemmed in entirely by the sometimes restrictive and stuffy nature of traditional bluegrass.

That’s not to knock Molly Tuttle’s recorded output heretofore. She also happens to be a great songwriter, and sometimes bluegrass is limiting in that capacity, just as singer/songwriter stuff can be limiting in showcasing instrumental virtuosity. But now she has released that bluegrass album we’ve all been craving from her, and she proves you don’t have to compromise your songwriting to perform in the subgenre. She also solidifies herself as one of the names at the very top of this vital and timeless side of country.

Crooked Tree is Molly Tuttle going, “Oh, you want a bluegrass album? We’ll then here you go …” and then melting faces in 13 straight original tracks that embrace many bluegrass traditions, while still offering a uniqueness of perspective, and a personal connection to Molly. There’s also some really great bluegrass instrumentation, and some tantalizing collaborations.

Molly Tuttle really put herself into the record both musically and personally, and the timing ended up being strangely fortuitous. A couple of weeks ago, most people thought alopecia was a type of tropical plant you rub on a sunburn. But when Molly Tuttle sings about being a “Crooked Tree,” she’s singing from her own experience, in part due to her own battle with the hair loss condition that has her putting on a wig every morning so as not to get sideways glances just going to the store.

Women aren’t supposed to be guitar badasses either, or so we’re told. That makes Molly Tuttle a little “crooked” too, if you want to consider it that way. But as she sings in the song “Side Saddle” with Gillian Welch, she’s not willing to adhere to the norms laid out in society. She’ll boldly follow her muse wherever it takes her, and as emphasized in the songs “She’ll Change” and “Goodbye Girl,” that could be somewhere completely unexpected, and it could all reverse course tomorrow.

Great songwriting graces Crooked Tree throughout, and really sticks close to Molly’s own narrative. The issue of the cost of living is very real, especially for people like Tuttle who grew up on the West Coast, but can’t afford to put roots down there due to the price of real estate and everything else. “San Francisco Blues” with Dan Tymiski encapsulates this dilemma perfectly, and how it’s not just about not being able to afford to live where you grew up, but how inflation and cost of living is usurping so many people’s ability to dream about the future, however humble those dreams might be.

And it’s so smart to pair “San Francisco Blues” up with “Nashville Mess Around,” which takes another perspective on the phenomenon as coastal dwellers exploit the relative “affordability” of places like Nashville until they’re affordable no more, and natives are resigned to telling people “Don’t move here!” and for tourists to “Go home!” while aspiring musicians just want their piece on the pie in Music City.

A couple of tracks stick closer to the bluegrass formula of song themes. “Dooley’s Farm” featuring Billy Strings may update the type of contraband to today’s tastes, but it’s still just a moonshining song. “Big Backyard” with Old Crow Medicine Show may be a little too Bert and Ernie with with the delivery of its neighborly message, but it’s a good message nonetheless. But a song like “Grass Valley” about the legendary West Coast bluegrass festival feels a bit more on target from Molly, and gives you some insight into her origin story.

If you’re looking for those robust instrumental performances that really showcase what Molly Tuttle and her cohorts are capable of, start with the first song “She’ll Change,” as well as “Over The Line” with the amazing Sierra Hull. These are the songs that will get the hair on the back of your neck standing at attention, alopecia notwithstanding.

Molly Tuttle could release an entire record of just instrumentals, and it would still steal your attention all the same. But what she proves to hopefully herself and everyone else with Crooked Tree is that doing bluegrass does not mean compromising the expressiveness of your music. Sure, maybe folk and singer/songwriter material tends to facilitate lyrical expressiveness easier, but Molly Tuttle is one to tackle things because they’re hard, not in spite of it.

Still, don’t get stuck on the idea that all of Molly Tuttle’s albums henceforth will be bluegrass too. As she tells us in Crooked Tree, she’s not fit for the mill machine. She will follow her heart, not the herd, and you can be assured at some point that will steer away from bluegrass once more, whether it’s her next album, or seven albums down the road.

But for right now, Molly Tuttle is at home in bluegrass with her band Golden Highway, and we’re all 100% here for it.


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