Making a life as a musician requires enough courage that any success should be considered, by all accounts, an admirable achievement.
But Molly Tuttle has shown herself to be brave both on the stage and off of it. The qualities that empower her to thrive in both worlds was on display in her recent show at Baltimore Soundstage.
Hailing from Palo Alto, California, Tuttle grew up as a member of a family that valued and celebrated music — her father, Jack, was a seasoned bluegrass player and instructor. Molly was playing the guitar as a little girl and, by the time she was a teenager, she’d already recorded an album of duets with her dad.
But also by this time, Molly had accomplished something more significant — she’d navigated her childhood while persevering the struggles that come with alopecia areata, a diagnosis she received at three years old, which then within a year progressed into the more uncommon and more severe alopecia universalis.
Gleaming brightly as one of today’s leading voices and performers in all of bluegrass — a realm traditionally occupied mostly by men — Molly no doubt continues to build on the strength she had to muster in her youth as she forges deeper into this space while not even yet 30 years old.
Her newest outfit, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway announced back in January a forthcoming album on Nonesuch Records, titled Crooked Tree, as well as an ambitious multi-segment tour, which included an April 10 stop at Baltimore Soundstage, just a little more than week following the drop of the album.
Stream Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway’s first and newly released studio album, Crooked Tree, via Spotify:
In what turned out to be a lively and stirring triumph of music all produced by stringed instruments, Molly exceeded any expectations this past Sunday night as a fabulously polished, adept guitar player, her flat-picking speed and precision simply a marvel on its own and the delightful, refreshing pitch of her voice reminding this city exactly what charm sounds like.
“It’s great to be back here,” Molly told an enthusiastic crowd, one that included some of the musicians who are leading Baltimore’s own thriving bluegrass and old-time music scene.
“We’re celebrating the release our new record, and we’re excited to bring some Nashville to Baltimore.”
An enlistment of like-minded, hyper-talented musicians, Golden Highway strode into Baltimore as an all-star cast: International Bluegrass Music Association 2020 Fiddler of the Year Bronwyn Keith-Hines, Grammy-nominated bass player Shelby Lee Means, in-demand mandolinist Dom Leslie, and Kyle Tuttle, who, though no relation to Molly, is a widely acclaimed, electrifying banjoist and the 2017 National Bluegrass Banjo Champion.
The five-piece band was dexterous, meticulous and seemingly synchronized and choreographed in their presentation of a robust, gratifying list of songs including some recorded on Crooked Tree, as well as Molly’s solo catalogue and some unforeseen covers from within and outside the bluegrass genre.
Starting off with a brisk, thumping take on “She’ll Change” — a song performed a day earlier during a CBS Saturday Morning show appearance — Molly showcased her rapid-fire fingers and an added sass in her singing to make this song burst out of the gate.
Watch the official music video for Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway’s single “She’ll Change” via Molly’s official YouTube channel:
But as she would in each track, if the composition didn’t naturally invite it, Molly herself would seem to encourage her bandmates to express herself or himself, and none were shy in that regard as the first few songs saw the band trading off on melodies and breakdowns.
“Nashville Mess Around,” a carefree and bouncing groove with seamless, strikingly gorgeous yodeling providing by Molly, convinced the room just two songs into the night that any guard was to be dropped — this was already on its way to being an astonishing evening.
By the third song, a red-hot take on Bill Monroe’s jam “Wheel Hoss,” the group looked as accurate as any could aim to be, and their rotation took on an arranged swagger as the audience found its stride, hoots and hollers coming from all corners of the Market Place venue. Here, Dom, then Molly, then Kyle and then Bronwyn teed off toward the center of the stage to build this into an energizing and crowd-pleasing number.
Two consecutive songs from the new album, both rich in character, helped keep the set moving with purpose. “Castilleja” featured an invigorative lead from Molly, vivid patterns from Kyle and fiddle sections with particularly mysterious resolution. “The River Knows” followed that theme well in live fashion just as it does on the new record, giving Molly another chance to display the variation in her vocals — the ability to croon, howl and suspend her words with immaculate timing and resonance — while simultaneously snapping the curious rhythm driving this tune.
Prior to the pandemic years, Molly had been on an impressive trajectory: She was named Guitar Player of the Year at the 2017 IBMA Awards and that same year won the IBMA’s Momentum Award. The following year, she repeated as the Guitar Player of the Year in remarkable fashion and won Recorded Event of the Year honors for “Swept Away.” Tuttle had received additional nominations in 2018 for Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year (for her Rise EP) and Song of the Year (“You Didn’t Call My Name”).
It was in that same time frame — as she’s so heroically detailed on her website and through her ongoing conversations on social — that she might have truly found her peace with alopecia, a condition that in the wake of some highly publicized recent and unfortunate events might hopefully be viewed with much greater compassion and understanding by the American public.
A scroll through Molly’s social media — see her Instagram Story Highlights, specifically — is a heartrending window into one human’s resolve to help others striving to overcome challenges she’s already faced and to extinguish social stigma that only worsen the experience for those with the condition.
Watch the official video for Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway’s “Castilleja” via Molly’s official YouTube channel:
Using a skillset that isn’t just bestowed on someone but the result of more than 20 years of practice, study and dedication — Molly ended up on the East Coast via a merit scholarship to the Berklee College of Music — she’s established herself as such a luminary in bluegrass to become an exemplar for others, especially so for those who are not male.
And while she’s clearly and rightfully respected by her elder peers — she was a featured artist on recordings by the likes of Bela Fleck and Old Crow Medicine Show — Molly took the role of a mastermind to pull together such a capable team of budding, influential players.
While Molly’s voice was a centerpiece throughout the night, she was supported by Shelby’s own vocals, and she called out the widely regarded bassist for not just her winsome style with the standup, but also the beautiful harmonies she was creating on top of complex, brisk compositions. The track “Side Saddle” saw Means step to the mic, share some of her Wyoming-bred perspective, pointing out the lack of oysters like she found at spots in downtown Baltimore, and then assisted Molly in directing the playful, dallying piece.
Keith-Hynes, intensely focused and graceful stage right, would weave notes in blazing detail, essentially giving much of the compositions their sonic edge — in some, her violin added the aura of bliss, endless joy; in others, the heartbreaking anguish many listeners seek in bluegrass music. She’d thrust a poignancy into songs to creating powerfully emotive feelings and led the way in tracks like “Crooked Tree,” the title piece from the new album.
Kyle brought a rebellious demeanor to an already stylish group, and he would get the cue from Molly on more than one occasion to take arduous runs on the banjo and fling that radiating sound out over a crowd that was moving to it the whole time. He shined all night, including during a buoyant take on John Hartford’s “Up on The Hill Where They Do the Boogie” and “Olympia, WA,” a revision of one of Molly’s favorite Rancid songs that she put on her covers album, …but i’d rather be with you, recorded by her lonesome in the midst of the pandemic in an effort to pull through it and stay connected to fans.
Stream Molly Tuttle’s 2020 covers album, …but i’d rather be with you, via Spotify:
Dom, meanwhile, put off a nonchalant, maybe at times even a silly vibe at Baltimore Soundstage, but there was no mistaking that limber lever of a right hand, which he cranked for the entire set from way over stage left, chopping and then stepping into marvelous sequences that seemed to let each song explore the path a little more widely and fueled the crowd.
As is required of an advanced bluegrass machine, each member seemed to do her or his part in keeping the rest in synch with what appeared to be a mindset of total collaboration, perhaps a nod to the buy-in Molly found in forging these ties.
Molly shared insight into her song inspirations as she went. Holding her family’s love for music close to her at all times, she reminisced about trips to her grandparents’ Illinois farm, where as a young girl she’d be moved and inspired by the bluegrass music her grandfather would play during those visits. Capturing her nostalgia for those days, she crafted “Flatland Girl,” which features Margo Price on the recorded track and performed live in Baltimore manifested as an authentic and original piece — one that could only forebode a long and healthy career for this role model who now makes Nashville her home.
Returning to the stage for the night’s encore, with a large-diaphragm condenser positioned front and center, Molly and company would further reward those in attendance with a fitting three-song sendoff, including a festive “Streets of Baltimore,” and then closing with a “Big Backyard” from Crooked Tree. A jubilant and fantastical track that features Old Crow Medicine Show on the album, this song amplified its harmony and its delight, while the band leader’s voice was at her most wondrous and euphoric:
“Some folks say to stake your claim, and fence it in, but I see it different / Come on out to the big backyard / It ain’t mine, it ain’t yours, it’s all of ours.”
Molly Tuttle’s amazing story certainly transcends the stage and the recording studio. But by putting herself up to the task that is a life in bluegrass music, and thriving within the arena that guided her through her darkest days, Molly’s found an avenue to share her fortitude and resilience with others who could very well use it.
And by artfully committing herself to the craft and through devising a network of vigorous, progressive musicians, Molly is setting a course to not just impact bluegrass, but to shape it, carry it forward and pass it all down to the next generation.
Nashville Mess Around
The River Knows
Over the Line
Olympia, WA (Rancid)
She’s A Rainbow (Rolling Stones)
Up on The Hill Where They Do the Boogie (John Hartford)
Cold Rain and Snow
Friend and A Friend
Take The Journey
Streets of Baltimore (encore)
Backup and Push (encore)
Big Backyard (encore)
Here are images of Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway as well as the night’s opening act, Oliver Hazard, performing at Baltimore Soundstage on April 10, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.