Molly Tuttle, born in Santa Clara, California, in January 1993, proves that a gifted musician can be steeped in tradition but of her own era. Tuttle recorded her first cd (The Old Apple Tree) with her father Jack Tuttle—a renowned bluegrass performer and expert—at the age of 13. She joined the all-female Goodbye Girls while at the Berklee College of music and has since won the International Bluegrass Association’s Best Guitarist of the Year award twice, in 2017 and 2018.
She is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who, like Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Alison Krauss, can vocally soar into the clear blue heavens when she wants to. Golden Highway, comprised of mandolinist Dominick Leslie, banjoist Kyle Tuttle, fiddle player Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, and bassist Shelby Mean honed their sound and cohesiveness via long stretches on the road. My first impression upon listening to City of Gold was “This is fantastic.” My second impression was that everyone should hear this album. I listened a third time and realized the band also takes risks within a genre tightly bound in tradition.
Alice in the Bluegrass (Track 7), for example, is a Tuttle composition that winds through the Mad Hatter, glowworms, and some funny cornbread while the singer tells us a story about a “backwoods wonderland.” One doubts that Bill Monroe ever tripped through the bluegrass quite like this (though Tuttle confirms that Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music and a legend in his own right, always encouraged her to write from her personal perspective). Other standout tracks include Yosemite (4), featuring accompanying vocals by Dave Matthews, Down Home Dispensary (5), which explicitly makes the case for marijuana legalization in Tennessee, and the luscious life-on-the-road song Next Rodeo (9).
City of Gold was recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios, co-produced by Tuttle and Jeremy Douglas. The latter, who leads the Jeremy Douglas Band, has his own storied career as a producer, dobro-player, musical innovator, and boundary-pushing artist who can combine flavors of jazz, country, bluegrass, and folk into essential Americana. He is 67, Tuttle is 30, and the combination of their talents has resulted in one of this year’s best albums.
Bluegrass is a challenging genre for a contemporary artist. Its roots lie in musical traditions brought to Appalachia by Scots Irish immigrants and African slaves in the 1800s. Strands of folk music, gospel, and country wind through it, though distinctive playing techniques (such as flatpicking) distinguish it from traditional country music. Legends such as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Arnold Schwartz, and Mother Maybelle Carter still haunt this music. Fans bring high expectations and strong opinions about what bluegrass music is supposed to sound like.
It was John Cohen, co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers in the late 1950s, who coined the phrase “high lonesome sound” to describe the unique melodic quality of bluegrass. City of Gold captures that elusive old sound but also opens the windows in a crowded room, letting some sunlight in. Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway are currently on an extensive tour of the United States and United Kingdom. I am a convert and will be purchasing a ticket for their show in Knoxville. This is seriously good music.
Reviewed by Amy Lynn Fletcher