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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April 4, 2022 @ 11:13 am
Thanks for reviewing all of these bluegrass releases. This is my album of the year, so far. I’m a big fan of Molly, one of the best guitarists out there.
Bela, Billy and Molly have created some incredible music lately. It’s a good time to be a bluegrass fan.
April 4, 2022 @ 11:41 am
Hello from Denmark.
Great review. I love this album, and One of my favorites so far this year.
John R Baker
April 4, 2022 @ 1:03 pm
I have been enjoying this album a lot. I think this is the strongest material she has recorded so far. One noteworthy thing you pass over is that Ketch Secor seems to have become her primary song writing partner and apparently something of a mentor. They seem to work together a lot and I think it’s helped her a lot. I had previously felt that the quality of her song writing was not as strong as her excellent playing and signing. But that seems to have really improved. I don’t think it was just working with Ketch that did it either because the title track is the best and more personal in my opinion and was written with somebody named Melody Walker.
I think this is going to be a big album for her.
April 4, 2022 @ 1:10 pm
Thanks for the review…been looking forward to this…enjoyed her other albums enough but when I first heard she was doing a bluegrass album I felt like this would be more my speed…I understand stories like the Eric Church thing get more clicks & comments…but it’s your reviews of albums that have turned me on to so many artists I otherwise might have never heard of that have kept me checking this site daily for years
April 4, 2022 @ 1:51 pm
Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I like instrumental bluegrass better than bluegrass with vocals; but I gave this a listen to anyway, and I really enjoyed it.
April 4, 2022 @ 5:34 pm
Years ago I felt the same about the vocals. Depends on the style. Some are more “accessible” than others, Tony Rice, Allison Krauss, Patty Loveless on Mountain Soul, Chis Stapleton with the Steeldrivers, Alan Jackson’s Bluegrass Album to name just a few. And Molly of course. I think Billy String’s vocals have improved over time. An old friend gave me a cassette tape of Del McCoury before I had heard of him, couldn’t stand it. Now I think he’s one of the best!
April 4, 2022 @ 6:37 pm
They do tend to grow on you. But I agree with you – some are better than others. The ones you mentioned that i’ve heard I like.
April 4, 2022 @ 3:33 pm
I was able to see her yesterday in Massachusetts. Her and the band put on a great show. It was quite a treat.
April 4, 2022 @ 7:49 pm
Kicking myself for waiting too long and not get tix to that. How was Bella white?
April 6, 2022 @ 11:41 am
I thought she did well. She has a beautiful voice with good inflection. The song selection left a little to be desired. I was hoping one would jump out and grab me but I didn’t get that. She did do a cover of Dublin Blues which was the highlight for me.
April 4, 2022 @ 5:18 pm
Really enjoying “taking the journey” with Molly!
April 5, 2022 @ 9:11 am
Thanks for the review Trigger. And Molly, thanks for a wonderful album, your guitar playing is as always
outstanding. I also love your lyrics they are often very intriguing Even those I don’t understand.(That may be because I’m Swedish 🙂 )
Like this line from “Castilleja”:
“To where the highway turns to sand”
What on earth does that means!!??🙃 🙂 🙃
April 5, 2022 @ 10:18 am
Find Inyo on the map in California and head east. It is desert.
April 6, 2022 @ 11:06 am
Ah! That make sense. Thank you very much. I should have understood from the rest of the lyrics.🙂 Love the song, she really is an amazing songwriter…
David: The Duke of Everything
April 5, 2022 @ 2:25 pm
Still wanting to listen to the whole album. I listened to some of her previous stuff but seemed too indie for me for the most part. But I love crooked tree so hopefully will like a few more. Great write up.
April 6, 2022 @ 7:09 am
Great album, and exactly the one i was looking for from Molly. I also thought the OCMS collab was a bit naive but it grew on me and sits well in the tracklist. Solid release and the stellar instrumental performances “serve” the melodies not viceversa.
April 6, 2022 @ 7:31 am
Trig – Thanks for the review. I’ve been looking forward to this album since you first highlighted ‘She’ll Change” a few months ago. This is simply a great piece of work. The song writing is as strong, thinking Lori McKenna strong, the music is blazing but never at the expense of the song. I am sharing this with everyone I know and looking forward to seeing her live someday.
April 7, 2022 @ 2:17 pm
Been absolutely slammed at work, but wanted to make record that I f***ing love this album.
That run of “Flatland Girl” to “Crooked Tree” is as good as any album that has been or will be released this year.
The features are awesome too. Crazy how well she harmonizes with Price and Strings.
The writing on “Crooked Tree” and “Dooley’s Farm” is top notch. Crooked Tree is definitely my favorite track. The composition and message alone are enough to make you jealous of how easy she makes it seem.