Molly Tuttle Follows Up A Grammy-Winner With "City Of Gold"
Guitarist, singer and songwriter wades deeper into bluegrass on her fifth recording.
Bluegrass is enjoying one of its cyclical surges of artistry and audience, with Molly Tuttle in the vanguard. She and Billy Strings have become the first ascendant acoustic guitar stars in years, while carving out band identities as distinct and transformative as Alison Krauss and Union Station in the 90s or J.D. Crowe and the New South in the 70s. She’s won numerous bluegrass awards and a Grammy before age 30. In a golden time, Tuttle is a golden girl from the Golden State with her second album in 16 months, aptly titled City of Gold.
Molly was raised in the Bay Area bluegrass scene by father Jack Tuttle, a much-admired musician and stringed instrument teacher. They had a family band and a life circulating at festivals. Molly attended Berklee College of Music and then moved to Nashville while making her name as a distinctive instrumentalist, singer and songwriter. In 2017, Tuttle became the first woman to be named Guitar Player of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards (joining the ranks of Tony Rice, David Grier, and Bryan Sutton). Her performance at a spontaneous midnight show after that ceremony is one of my fondest musical memories, because all in attendance knew that we were seeing a complete young artist stepping into her future. (She’d go on to win another guitar award and Female Vocalist of the Year as well.)
Funny timing about that award though, in that she was an artist in her mid 20s with wide-ranging influences, and diving straight into the bluegrass business wasn’t the first thing on her mind. She released a debut EP and then an album, 2019’s When You’re Ready, that leaned toward acoustic pop. They were excellent recordings with some impressive picking, but with few touchstones of the tradition. During the pandemic she made a covers album featuring songs by the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, and The National among others.
High lonesome catharsis for us bluegrass fans came at last though in 2022 with Crooked Tree, billed for the first time as Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, her new band brimming with extravagant talent and a sense of mission. With all original songs, the album delivered a refreshing variety of styles and moods - brisk and banjo-driven, dark and modal, western swing, and breezy west coast folk. The prestigious major boutique Nonesuch Records purloined her from the indie acoustic label where she’d started out, and the album went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, while propelling her to an overall Best New Artist nomination as well.
Golden Highway has been so intensely on the road since Crooked Tree was released, it’s hard to know how Tuttle had time to write a new album and book time at Sound Emporium Studio in Nashville to make City of Gold. Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas returned from the Crooked Tree team as producer. The players, the same as her road band, are young aces from Music City: the kinetic, elegant fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, jam-friendly banjo player Kyle Tuttle (no relation), mandolin explorer Dominick Leslie, and hard-driving bass player Shelby Means. With three women and two men, they make a rare and powerful mix, one that eases bluegrass music’s long-running gender imbalance.
The album leads with one of its best songs, as any album should. “El Dorado” is an ambitious nine-verse portrait of a brassy saloon keeper named Gold Rush Kate from the 19th century and the many characters who stride through her swinging doors. Next is one of the less successful numbers, as “Where Did All The Wild Things Go”doesn’t really land with its hip hop groove and verbosity. “Yosemite” rights the ship - a duet with Dave Matthews as a couple in trouble seeking personal repair on the road.
And herein likes the core story of the album. Tuttle co-wrote virtually every song here with Ketch Secor, the leader and fiddle player in Old Crow Medicine Show. The two have collaborated in a number of ways over the years. And they have chemistry to be sure. Yet while it’s full of clever scenarios and wordplay, this collection doesn’t quite match Crooked Tree’s for depth and emotional weight. I don’t find myself taking as many of these to heart, as I did with “Crooked Tree” and “The River Knows” (both written with Nashville's Melody Walker) or “Big Backyard,” which was a timeless folky number co-penned with Secor. The 13 tracks on City Of Gold still make for a fine, varied experience and state of the art bluegrass, but one that builds on the strength of the dynamic ensemble musicianship at least as much as the songcraft itself.
Tuttle isn’t a conspicuous public stoner like Billy Strings, but she sure does seem to enjoy writing songs about weed! Last album it was “Dooley’s Farm,” in which the fabled bluegrass moonshiner takes on a newer, more progressive cash crop. City Of Gold’s first entry is the speedy, banjo-rolling “San Joaquin,” a train song about smuggling “Humboldt green” across Cali. It’s one of the best vehicles for Molly’s soloing and band jamming in general. In “Alice In The Bluegrass,” an unsuspecting country girl gets dosed into a “backwoods wonderland.” It’s an unmitigated winner that bubbles like a bong with inside jokes and heady acoustic picking. I’m tempted to write off “Downhome Dispensary” as a trifle, but it’s such an elaborately argued manifesto for legal weed in Tennessee (where we can’t have nice things) that I have to salute its wonkish exactitude.
Other favorites here include “Next Rodeo,” a swaying, self-referential song about the touring life and “Stranger Things,” which is a bit elusive lyrically. But it sure is pretty with Jerry Douglas’s dobro lending ambience. “More Like A River” is a rich love song with fingerstyle guitar and an easy tone that evokes early Alison Krauss. “Goodbye Mary” is a visceral song set to an old English folk template about a woman abandoned to a pregnancy with tragic results and timely overtones. Yet this one has the same cadence and melody as Tuttle’s heart-stopping live take on the standard murder ballad “Cold Rain And Snow,” making me wish she’d recorded that one instead. The final track “The First Time I Fell In Love” is a pleasant, nostalgic waltz that comes with plenty of west coast sunshine and a nice twist in the chorus.
Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway in concert is a thrilling experience that will draw most anybody farther into the wonder and variety of bluegrass music. While City Of Gold adds some solid material to their sets, I wish the album conveyed more of the ensemble’s freedom and virtuosity. There are few extended jams and no instrumentals. The musicianship is superb, and Sean Williams Sullivan captures a rich mix; Nashville knows how to record acoustic instruments after all. Molly Tuttle perhaps played things a bit safe for the sophomore release of her bluegrass career, but Tuttle’s pure musicality and band leadership make City Of Gold glimmer.