Fast-fingered Molly Tuttle fashions new sounds from traditional bluegrass

By Bliss Bowen

It speaks volumes about Molly Tuttle’s performance chops that a guitarist as revered as Grammy winner Bryan Sutton respects her technique, which developed out of the clawhammer banjo playing she learned first as a child. In a performance/interview from last year’s RockyGrass festival in Colorado, posted on YouTube, Sutton compliments her guitar playing and singing, and informs her, “We have high hopes for you.” The two then jam on the instrumental standard “St. Anne’s Reel” — and Tuttle holds her own.

The daughter of Jack Tuttle, a stalwart veteran of Northern California’s acoustic music community, the 24-year-old Tuttle has been rising to meet high standards since she started performing in public at age 11. In 2012, accompanied by her father, she won second place in a duet contest on “Prairie Home Companion” while she was still studying in the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music in Boston. That spring she also earned top prize at MerleFest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest for “Walden,” a song she initially wrote for a high school English class assignment. Last year, she won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Momentum Award.

Now, fronting her own band, the sweet-toned soprano’s tour itinerary is dominated by festivals and venues with audiences steeped in bluegrass, who expect artists to wow them with higher-than-average musicianship.

“Bluegrass is such a technical genre and people have taken it to pretty high levels with instrumental ability and improvising,” Tuttle acknowledges during a phone conversation while driving to San Francisco for a show at Freight & Salvage. Onstage at her own shows, Tuttle mixes bluegrass standards and outside material like Joni Mitchell’s “Morning Morgantown” with original songs from her new album, “Rise.”

Made in Nashville with Abigail Washburn/Greencards producer Kai Welch, the cleanly recorded album shines with sparkling instrumental solos and a wistful rendition of “Walden.” Inspired by Henry David Thoreau and the legendary Connecticut pond, the song can also be heard as commentary on California history and environmental struggles: “I see it all from where I’m standing on the mountain/ Hear the valleys cry, still some question why and they cannot see the way/ They’re digging graves, every day they’re getting deeper/ For the birds that fly through the darkened sky, will there be another day?”

“Rise” features guests like Darrell Scott, Kathy Kallick, and Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, also known as L.A. duo the Milk Carton Kids, whom Tuttle first met and jammed with at the Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City. “I love their harmony singing so much I asked them to sing on this album,” she says. “We were on tour opening for them and they had some recording gear, so they just slipped backstage and laid down harmonies.”

Last month, Tuttle graced the cover of Acoustic Guitar magazine, in connection with an article spotlighting six “next-gen pickers” who are carrying on bluegrass tradition in individual ways. Like Chatham County Line (also profiled in AG), Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, Chris Thile and Sara Watkins before her, Tuttle chooses to stand on bluegrass while cherry-picking ideas and elements from other genres.

It’s not a new trick; Bill Monroe forged his hard-driving bluegrass from blues, gospel and old-time string-band style, and David Grisman’s “dawg” music is an eclectic amalgam of bluegrass, folk and jazz. But while older generations claim such fusion causes bluegrass to lose its soul, up-and-coming artists are finding vitality in genre mixing.

“I’ve heard a lot of different points of view on that; it’s kind of a big conversation in the bluegrass world,” Tuttle says. “I think there’s something to be said for that. I really love traditional bluegrass. I always hope that some bands will try to carry on that tradition and keep the really traditional stuff alive, but I don’t really like to stick to one genre. A lot of the newer bands today are branching out, and I think that’s really healthy and a great thing for the genre.”

The Molly Tuttle Band performs at 8 p.m. Friday, May 12, at Boulevard Music, 4316 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $17.50. Call (310) 398-2583 or visit boulevardmusic.com.

Molly Tuttle, 24, has the chops to impress old pros and a sweet
soprano voice to boot
Photo by Anthony Scarlati