Molly Tuttle on Storytelling, Place, and Modernity in Bluegrass
To those unfamiliar, bluegrass is often imagined as a primarily historical genre, one that is clearly rooted in the America of The Andy Griffith Show and is maintained today in an ossified state. Molly Tuttle is a striking disproof of every aspect of this conception. Already widely regarded as one of the greatest living bluegrass guitarists at just the age of 30, her rise to prominence — first on the California bluegrass festival circuit, then worldwide — was meteoric; her fans are young, cosmopolitan, and energetic; her band, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, has a voguish and bold stage aesthetic; and her music is highly contemporary and progressive. Yet the deep roots of her style in the pantheon of traditional bluegrass are evident, and her newest album, City of Gold, is a highly personal and historically informed exploration of home. WHRB spoke to Tuttle about her musical perspective in light of both her personal background and bluegrass traditions, anticipating her Celebrity Series concert at the Berklee Performance Center on Friday, November 17.
Give us a preview of what our listeners can expect to see at your Berklee show.
MT: A lot of us in the band have lived in Boston — I went to Berklee, as did a couple of the members in the band, and we've all spent a lot of time in Boston. I think Shelby, our bass player, is the only one who hasn't actually lived in Boston. But since she was in a Boston-based band, Della Mae, for many years, she spent so much time there. So we're really looking forward to this next round because it's kind of like a pseudo-hometown show for us: we have all these ties to the Boston area at Berklee, and I think it's gonna bring back a lot of fun memories for us. We'll certainly have some special songs picked out to play there, and hopefully, we get to see some friends coming out to the show and maybe some special guests. So it's gonna be a fun night, we'll be playing a lot of songs off the new record City of Gold.
What was it like going to Berklee as a bluegrass musician? How did both the education there and the broader milieu influence your style?
It’s where I met so many of the friends that I still play music with today, like Baldwin, who played with me when we met, um, as Berkeley students. And it's like you build a network of people that are all your peers—you're coming up in the music industry at the same time, and a lot of us moved to Nashville after Boston. So going to Berklee gave me this built-in community, and I learned so much there about music theory and these general music concepts that apply to any style that I'm playing.
There's a glib aphorism that bluegrass relies on three or four chords really heavily, but your music is very harmonically complex. How did this musicality, and your relationship with the bounds of traditional bluegrass change throughout your career, including when you passed through Berklee?
I've always had a strong love for traditional bluegrass — the first people who started kind of pioneering the genre like Bill Monroe, or the Stanley Brothers and Hazel Dickens. That always appealed to me because it felt really authentic, and I think that kind of music still inspires my songwriting today. But at the same time, I'm living in the 21st century, and the things that I've experienced in my life are different from what someone like Bill Monroe would have written about. Growing up with Spotify and the Internet and stuff, I feel like I've always listened to all different types of music, and then going to Berklee was really cool because it opened my mind to all these different styles that I've never even attempted to play before — just hanging out with people who are more into like improvisational music and blues. And so that opened my mind that open the way that I think about music. So now when I go to create music, I think about genre in a way like, “What's gonna sound good with this instrumentation that I have with my band, which was a bluegrass band, that we like to do things are away in?” And we'd like to stretch the limits of the music.
Is the musical range that gets played at festivals somewhat culturally constrained? How have you been able to expand creatively since becoming a producing artist?
It really just kind of depends on the festival because even within bluegrass, you have different sub-genres out there, like bands and traditional folks who just don't want to plug in, and then you have bluegrass bands with drums, and then in between bluegrass and rock or bluegrass and Americana are fans that consider themselves more just like American roots music — it's like a big community and you end up like hanging out and making music with people from all different genres. For me, my music is always dictated by the songs I'm writing and what I'm feeling inspired by and care about. So when I make an album, I usually have a batch of songs that I'm thinking about, like, what instrumentation will serve this music. And my last two records have been more fully acoustic than the records I made before that, which were more outside the box.
Elaborate a little more on how you've played around with instrumentation on your past albums.
I never really set out to make a bluegrass record until my record Crooked Tree. That's the first one where I thought I was going to have these constraints around my songwriting, where I wanted to write songs that sounded like songs I grew up playing around the campfire or at a bluegrass jam. But before that, like on my first EP that I made when I moved to Nashville, half the songs had banjo, but half of them had no banjo or mandolin or had drums and even flute, and all sorts of different percussion instruments, electric guitar…and I continued that onto my next record When You’re Ready, which was more like a rock-indie-folk-Americana album. And then, during the pandemic, I made this cover record with this great producer Tony Berg, and I had all sorts of different wild instrumentations on it — it was really fun. I wasn't there for the recording process because we were doing it kind of quarantine-style amidst the early days of the pandemic, but it was fun to experiment with the songs. And then, coming out of the pandemic, I was getting nostalgic for the music I grew up with and decided it would be a good time as any to get together a bunch of my bluegrass heroes and make the record Crooked Tree.
How did going through your first experience of making a bluegrass album with Crooked Tree inform how you went about City of Gold?
I wanted to spend more time making it because Crooked Tree was really live: we recorded everything in about a week. I took a lot more time arranging the songs on City of Gold, and I also wanted to dial it back a little bit in terms of the people on the album and have it just centered around my touring band and not have as many special guests and outside musicians come in and play. In doing that, we could hone in on our sound together, rehearse the songs, and really dial them in for the record, which was a fun process. It was a pretty different process even though I was working with a lot of the same people, like Jerry Douglas and John Solomon, who engineered both albums.
There are a lot more “story songs” on Crooked Tree and City of Gold than I had written before. It did lead with “What’s the song going to be about, what’s the story we’re going to tell – what’s a traditional folk song or, like, a John Hartford song,” or something we could use as a reference for what we’re trying to write. It was really conceptualizing the song, a lot of times, before the music would take shape.
Who’s influenced your musical style with respect to storytelling and the ballad style?
I’d say, Gillian Welch, Bob Dylan, and then just all the traditional songs – Hazel Dickens, Bill Monroe… It’s so much a part of the music to tell those stories, especially in the old ballads that are traditional, and we don’t know who wrote them originally.
You mentioned Hazel Dickens, who, like you, has made a lot of music with political messages — how has the reception been for telling stories and messages that don’t normally get told through bluegrass music?
It’s pretty much only positive feedback about the songs, maybe one or two comments here and there…what really stands out to me is how people resonated with the songs. A lot of times, in our day and age, people are sharing their opinions about political issues via social media, and that can cause a lot more backlash, anger, and hurtful comments than a song can. I feel like songs can cross through political divides and unite people a little bit more than we’re used to reading the news or posting online about something. People maybe don’t agree fully with some of the songs, but for one, a lot of people don’t even listen super closely to the songs — but I’ve mostly had really positive feedback.
Several of your songs are about weed — what is it about this topic that really resonates with the spirit of your style of bluegrass storytelling?
I think there are so many songs about people who are doing things outside the norm: there are tons of songs about moonshiners, but these days, alcohol is no longer illegal, and weed is — it’s taking that common trope in the music and updating it a little bit. Being from California, I ended up growing up around people who grew weed, and it was illegal when I was a kid — setting out to write these California bluegrass songs on City of Gold, it was just a natural topic. I’m not someone who’s smoking weed day in and day out, but it’s a fun thing to sing about and write about, and it is one of those current topics in our country that can, in a way, fit into this genre really well, because you can write about farmers, you can write about outlaws — just kid of a political statement song. It’s become kind of this unexpected theme in a few of my songs now that, once I had ‘Dooley’s Farm,’ it was like, “Where can I take this from here?”
Living in Nashville now, how do you view your upbringing in California and Massachusetts, and how have these transitions of place influenced you?
It was a really difficult transition. I had a complete culture shock when I moved to Nashville that I wasn’t really expecting. I think I was 18 or 19 when I moved to Boston, and besides the weather, I felt like I fit in. I felt like I met similar, like-minded people. When I moved to Nashville, I expected it to be another transition, just like moving from the West Coast to the East Coast. But it was really different in the pace of life, the culture in general; the political climate was way different from anywhere I had ever lived. I think that gives me a unique perspective since I’ve lived here for almost nine years now, which feels like quite a bit of time to settle in. It does feel like home, but I will always be nostalgic for where I grew up, and I’ll always call that home as well.
What’s the experience of being a musician in Nashville like compared to your previous experiences in California and Boston?
There’s definitely a certain sound and culture to the music scene here in Nashville — it’s a lot of working and touring musicians. I think in other big music cities like New York or L.A., people might experiment a little more and might have more time in the studio — more people making music that isn’t as put in a box as it is here in Nashville — there is that kind of “Nashville sound.” But then, I also think the city is growing a ton, and tons of people are moving here — there’s always been a diverse array of different styles of music and different sounds being made here, but I do think it’s growing so much right now. We’re getting more and more interesting musicians moving into town, and there are always new opportunities for collaboration. They do call Nashville a “ten-year town” — I feel like the longer you’re here, the deeper into the community you get, and the more freedom you get and more connections you make, and that allows for some really interesting creative opportunities.
You’ve explored a lot of places with your music — Appalachia and elsewhere — and are now transitioning to telling more personal stories about home. How have you approached telling stories about places that aren’t home to you, compared to talking about your intimate upbringing and the places where you grew up?
Even when I’m writing songs about another place or something I haven’t directly experienced, it’s informed by something that I’ve experienced or someone I’ve known or a story I’ve heard — so even like Dooley’s Farm, that was kind of inspired by my grandfather, who was a farmer. He wasn’t a marijuana farmer, but a lot of his tractors, his seed caps, and all his relics that I grew up around went into some of the lyrics of that song. Sometimes, I put in a concerted effort to write songs that are true to me and actually kind of autobiographical, like my song ‘Grass Valley’ or ‘The First Time I Fell In Love.’ It’s important to me to also tell my direct story, but that doesn’t mean the other songs aren’t related to who I am as well. ❑
//Ashwin Sivakumar ‘26 is a staff writer for The Blues Hangover and Hillbilly Jamboree.