The Nashville-dwelling picker is an award-winning bluegrass virtuoso and songwriting force to be reckoned with. We talk to the doubly talented Molly Tuttle...
Molly Tuttle’s acoustic playing is, without hidden asterisk or clarification, among the best we’ve heard. A virtuoso picker and Berklee graduate, she has taken the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Instrumentalist Of The Year prize for guitar for the last two years running.
Our US sister magazine Guitar World described the effect as “like listening to two guitarists at once” and we’d agree. For evidence, check out her version of Townes Van Zandt’s White Freight Liner Blues on YouTube, in which she plays both the fiddle and guitar sections, while also singing.
Tuttle is more than a fine picker, though. Her duality is represented by debut album When You’re Ready. Produced by Ryan Hewitt (The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers), it’s a songwriting vehicle first-and-foremost, taking influence as much from the likes of Aimee Mann, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as her bluegrass background.
Those ’grass roots do run deep, though. A Bay Area kid, Tuttle got her start early via her father - a multi-instrumentalist and one of the most respected bluegrass tutors in the region.
“Yeah, of course I had a choice!” she chides, when we ask if there was any paternal pressure.
“I grew up listening to my dad and wanted to play, so he got me a little Baby Taylor guitar and every now and then we’d sit down and he’d teach me something. I think I got hooked on my own. We would learn fiddle tunes, like Old Joe Clark and Cripple Creek and the more tunes I learned, the more it became a fun challenge to learn.”
Molly was soon onstage - from the age of 11 - and taking part in improvisational jams soon after. Living proof of the bluegrass scene’s slightly dogmatic, but nonetheless impressive knack for nurturing talented young players.
“People are pretty supportive of kids playing,” agrees Molly. “At a festival, there’s usually a group of adults jamming and then a group of kids running around and jamming. That made me want to push myself to get better and hang out with these kids who were a little more advanced than I was.”
The concept of the bluegrass jam might be ingrained in the US, but it’s a less common sight in Europe. Events are informal, with players arranged in a circle, with a leader calling their choice of tune, before the group contribute rhythm and harmonies, breaking for solos when they get the nod. The leader then passes to the left (mostly) and the process begins again with a new song choice.
“You want to pick a song that’s pretty common and easy, so that’s why people will learn a lot of the same songs,” says Molly. “It helps you build that repertoire... [as well as] being able to improvise over them.”
The scenario impacts not just technique, but gear choices, too. Parlours might be in vogue elsewhere, but they don’t cut it in a bluegrass jam.
“Right now, I’m using a Pre War Guitars 18 model and the other guitar I’m playing a lot is a Preston Thompson dreadnought,” explains Molly.
“They’re out in Oregon and getting pretty popular now. It’s loud and the sound is great. It’s Brazilian rosewood so it has a lot of overtones and undertones. It’s not the only option I have. I have a 000 guitar and a small Waterloo guitar, but whenever I’m playing in a band or jam, I bring the dreadnought.”
Molly’s talents continue to grow and it’ll be interesting to see where her debut takes her. Jason Isbell was impressed enough to contribute to album opener, Million Miles, while Take The Journey is a scorching blend of bluegrass finesse and pop energy. It’s no surprise she’s fast becoming a role model in a scene with a real dearth of female lead players.
“[I’ve encountered sexism] a lot,” acknowledges Molly. “What annoys me most is when I’ve been skipped in jams. There was one time where I was about to take a solo and this guy just leaned over me and looked at the guy playing banjo next to me and was like, ‘You take the next solo.’ I was the only one in the jam that he skipped. So many people came up to me after, like, ‘That guy was horrible.’
“In general, people are like, ‘Whoa, you can actually play!’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, why are you surprised?’ There aren’t a lot of women who play lead guitar in the bluegrass world, unfortunately.”
How many IBMA Instrumentalists of The Year will it take to change that? We suspect two - and they’re both Molly Tuttle.
Get to grips with Tuttle’s technique
“I do a lot with my right-hand technique,” explains Molly of her remarkable picking ability. “I’m playing from the wrist and when I’m playing leads, I like anchor my wrist on the bridge of the guitar, mostly, but try to keep everything really loose. I don’t clamp my hand down on the guitar.
“Then with my rhythm playing, I’m playing mostly from the elbow and it’s like a flicking motion. I do a lot of cross-picking. I have a less forceful style than some other people, but I like to go for nice tone and accuracy and clean-ness and I find I can get that with the right-hand technique I have.”