Ask anyone who has heard her, and they’ll likely say Molly Tuttle is too talented to stay in one lane. The critically acclaimed singer/songwriter/musician, who has taken home honors at both the Americana Music Awards and International Bluegrass Music Assn. (IBMA) Awards, returns to her bluegrass roots on her Nonesuch Records debut Crooked Tree, out Friday (April 1).
“For me, it’s always evolving,” Tuttle says of her sound. “I don’t see this [album] as a one off, but I also think to feel fully satisfied creatively I need to do other stuff as well. This felt like a really cool pathway that I opened up with this record where now I can return to bluegrass. That’s why I decided to create a band name for it, Molly Tuttle and the Golden Highway, just so it can be an ongoing project that I continue to work on, but it also leaves me free to kind of differentiate my other work that’s not really in the full-on bluegrass realm. If I do another kind of Americana or a more pop-leaning solo album it will just be under my name.” Tuttle’s 2017 EP Rise reached No. 2 on Billboard‘s Bluegrass chart.
Tuttle is currently on tour with Golden Highway members Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Shelby Means (bass) and Kyle Tuttle (banjo). Stops include shows at Nashville’s Station Inn, New York’s Brooklyn Made, Philadelphia’s Milkboy, Savannah, Georgia’s District Live, and Alexandria, Virginia’s Birchmere.
Dubbing her bluegrass band Golden Highway is a nod to the California native’s early musical aspirations. “I was thinking about the road that I took to go to my first bluegrass festival,” says Tuttle, the 2018 Americana Music Awards Instrumentalist of the Year and the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year in both 2017 and 2018 — the first woman in the history of the IBMA to receive the honor. “We’d always drive up Highway 49 through the Golden Hills,” she recalls. “To me it related to that road I took to the Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival, which is where I fell in love with the music in the first place.”
Recorded live at Nashville’s Ocean Way Studios, Crooked Tree was produced by Tuttle and Jerry Douglas. “The record I did before this, which was a cover album during the pandemic, was the opposite,” she says of 2020’s …but I’d rather be with you. “It was totally quarantine style. I recorded my guitar and then overdubbed my vocal, engineered it myself and then sent it to other people so I like that too because there’s a freedom in getting to just do it at my own pace, but this was the opposite. I sang the vocals live and I was in my own booth, but everyone else was on the floor playing together. We didn’t do anything to a click [track]. That’s my favorite way to hear bluegrass. It gives it a rawness that I really like. Maybe I’m not singing completely in tune all the time and the tempo is fluctuating a little bit, but that’s what makes it exciting to me.”
Tuttle enjoyed working with the revered Douglas on the project. “He’s amazing. I’ve gotten to play with him a bunch throughout the years and living in Nashville, we just run into each other a lot,” she says, noting that she got to know him much better on his Transatlantic tour. “I saw how he led the band and put together the arrangements and I knew that he would be a really awesome person to work with. It was fun. I’d never been a co-producer on one of my albums before. He was great to do it with because he was so supportive and gave me so much space for my ideas. It was a really collaborative feeling.”
Crooked Tree also includes collaborations with Old Crow Medicine Show, Sierra Hull, Margo Price, Billy Strings, Dan Tyminski and Gillian Welch. “Gillian is probably my biggest hero, and a lot of the songs on the album were inspired by her songs,” she says. “I thought ‘Side Saddle’ would be cool to have her sing on, because she’s such a badass lady and that song is about being a cowgirl — but to me it’s also about being a female musician. I play guitar and I’m always trying to just make my way in a male-dominated space and Gillian was one woman who I really looked up to my whole life.”
Strings joins her on “Dooley’s Farm.” “I loved the song ‘Dooley’ by the Dillards that’s about a moonshiner, and we were like, ‘We should write a song about a pot farmer named Dooley’ — because it’s obviously illegal to smoke pot in the South,” she says. “Billy and I have been friends for a while since I moved to Nashville. We were actually roommates for a couple of years. I’m a huge fan of his and admire his career and his musicianship, and I kept just hearing his voice on it. I thought he would add the perfect extra little flavor to that song.”
“Big Backyard” is a unifying anthem that features Old Crow Medicine Show, which she penned the song with the band’s Ketch Secor. “I was thinking about the song ‘This Land Is Your Land’ when I wrote that,” she says. “I just wanted to write a song that encapsulates all different parts of the country and makes people feel united. When I was writing it, I imagined singing it at a festival and just hoping that everyone would sing along and feel togetherness.”
Tuttle co-wrote every song on the album, including the title track, which she penned with Melody Walker. “We wanted to write a song about embracing your differences. Both of us had things that made us different from the other kids. I lost my hair when I was three years old. I always wore a hat in school or wore a wig and it made me feel separate from the other kids,” says Tuttle, who has alopecia. “Melody had scoliosis when she was a kid, so she had to wear a back brace and I think the crooked part literally resonated with her when we were writing that song. So that was an important message for both of us and I chose it as the title track because that’s what I want to convey with my music that it’s okay to be yourself. My biggest goal is to make people feel good in their own skin.”
The album closer, “Grass Valley,” is the most autobiographical song. “I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to put it on the album at first because all the other songs, they feel personal, but that one is so detailed about my actual experience,” she says. “That’s why I put it at the end is because I hope people listen to all the songs and share these different bluegrass influences. The end is showing where it all started for me and it was really exciting for me when we got my dad to sing the harmony part. He couldn’t come out to Nashville to sing it in person, but he has a little studio at home that we used to record at when I was a kid. We’d make little recordings together in the home studio, so he recorded his part there and that felt really special.”
For Tuttle, who grew up playing bluegrass with her family, this album will always occupy a special place in her repertoire. “I definitely feel differently about this record,” she days. “I just felt confident going into it. I’ve played this music my whole life and it really did start with my grandfather, who played banjo on a farm in Illinois and taught my dad how to play, and then my dad taught me how to play, so it just felt really natural in a way that my other albums felt like maybe I was pushing myself outside my comfort zone.”
In moving from Compass to Nonesuch, Tuttle feels she’s found the perfect home for her evolving sound. “So many of my favorite bands and albums have come out on Nonesuch and they’ve expanded to so many different genres,” she says. “That appealed to me, because I see them as a long-term home — where I can feel free to make a bluegrass album, and then maybe make an Americana or an indie rock record next. They really put artists first and let you have a lot of artistic freedom, which is important to me.”