Molly Tuttle Is a Top Bluegrass Guitarist. She’s Also a Lot More.

The singer, songwriter and guitarist Molly Tuttle’s fingers move so quickly, she could pick your pocket without breaking stride. Though she’s only been releasing albums for three years, the sharpest ears in Americana music have taken notice.

“I’ve never heard Molly Tuttle strike a single note that wasn’t completely self-assured,” said the roots music guitar master David Rawlings, half of Gillian Welch’s duo. “Molly plays with a confidence and command that only the very best guitarists ever achieve. If that could be bottled, I’d take two.”

Best known as a top bluegrass guitarist, Tuttle, 29, is emerging as strikingly label-resistant. The first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s guitar player of the year award (two years in a row, 2017 and 2018), she considers herself as much a singer as a player, whose light soprano packs a surprising wallop. Nor is she, strictly speaking, a bluegrass musician.

“I think of bluegrass as part of what I do,” Tuttle said, settling into a chair in her publicist’s office in Manhattan. “I can switch on my bluegrass self, but it doesn’t feel like my core identity, it feels more like an outlet for something I do and that I’ve done since I was a kid.”

Tuttle set about defining her own brand of roots pop in two critically acclaimed albums, “When You’re Ready” from 2019 and its 2020 follow-up, “… But I’d Rather Be With You.” While the second LP consists entirely of covers, Tuttle co-wrote every song on “Crooked Tree,” an album out Friday that is very much bluegrass. Several of its songs are written from not merely a woman’s perspective, but a feminist’s, making Tuttle an outlier in what remains a male-dominated genre.

“I’d always felt a block writing bluegrass songs,” she said. “I just don’t relate to a lot of the old themes. But something clicked where I was able to write songs that felt true to who I am but still fit into bluegrass.”

Tuttle grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., in a musical family. Her father taught guitar for a living, and counted his daughter and her two younger brothers as prized students. Gravitating to the guitar at 8, Tuttle soon had herself on a strict regimen (for a 10-year-old): an hour of practice after school, an hour before bedtime.

A musical omnivore, Tuttle helped herself to rock, punk and rap, including the National, Neko Case and the Bay Area punk bands Operation Ivy and Rancid. (Don’t miss her irresistibly propulsive punkgrass cover of Rancid’s “Olympia WA,” her solo a machine-gun spray of 16th notes.) Tuttle played acoustic guitar and banjo in the family’s bluegrass band, but she plugged in with pickup rock groups. Her middle-school music teacher had a big CD collection, much of which found its way onto Tuttle’s iPod.

“I remember taking a Rage Against the Machine album home,” she said, “and going, ‘Whoa! This is amazing!’”

By her midteens, Tuttle was driving with her father to California bluegrass festivals, reveling in the camaraderie. “It was so cool,” she said, “because nobody at my school knew what bluegrass was.”

The fellowship extended only so far. At one festival, Tuttle joined an impromptu jam in which the only musician she didn’t know was the fellow calling the tunes. When it came her turn to solo, she recalled, “He leaned right in front of me and pointed to the guy next to me, like, ‘You solo.’ He just completely skipped over me.’”

Sexism’s sting empowered her: “Today I have my own band, so there’s no one who’s going to make me feel like that guy did, except me,” she said. “But there’s always times,” she added, “when you’re the only woman, so they do the song in a guy key and you can’t sing on it. Stuff like that happens a lot.”

Tuttle has spent her life overcoming another hurdle: alopecia areata, an incurable autoimmune disease she contracted when she was 3 years old that results in partial, or, as in Tuttle’s case, total body hair loss.

“People thought I had cancer, which made me really self-conscious,” Tuttle recalled. “First my parents got me hats” — you can see her on a YouTube video, peering out from under a sort of oversized cloche. She switched to wigs at 15, and “it was finally, like, ‘I can relax.’”

Tuttle said those unaffected by alopecia rarely grasp its gravity. “People who don’t have alopecia think, ‘Well, it’s just hair,’ or ‘You can wear a wig,’” she said. “It is a traumatic thing. It’s like losing a part of your body.” While today Tuttle said she’s comfortable going without a wig, she prefers to wear one onstage. “What feels truest to myself is embracing the fluidity of ‘I can wear a wig one day and not wear a wig the next,’” she said.

Learning to live with the disease remains a challenge that inspired the new album’s title song, where Tuttle tells the world, “I’d rather be a crooked tree!” Writing and performing “Crooked Tree” — giving it pride of place as the album’s title — is, for Tuttle, an act of self-acceptance and affirmation.

“Growing up with it, and getting comfortable talking about it, has helped me overcome a lot of social anxiety — I’m naturally shy; everyone in my family is,” she said and laughed. “It’s helped me realize that it doesn’t matter what other people think, you can be yourself.”

After majoring in guitar performance at Berklee College of Music in Boston — although she said her real tutelage was years of close listening to the singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens (“She stood up for marginalized people”), the guitarists Clarence White and David Grier, and Joni Mitchell — Tuttle arrived in Nashville.

She worked with the mainstream pop producers Ryan Hewitt on her first album and Tony Berg on her second. Both surrounded Tuttle’s voice and guitar with multitextured, sometimes overly lush, soundscapes.

In February, 2021, Tuttle was writing songs for what was to be a third pop album when bluegrass songs began pouring out of her, a return to her comfort zone in anxious times. Shelving the pop project for the time being, she invited some of Nashville’s top bluegrass players into the studio and asked the dobro master Jerry Douglas, a major force in contemporary bluegrass, to co-produce with her what became “Crooked Tree.”

The album’s first single, “She’ll Change,” co-written with Tuttle’s frequent collaborator, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, is a paean to strong women (“Just snaps her little fingers/And they all stand in line”) sprinkled with Tuttle’s jaw-dropping bluegrass runs.

On other tracks, Tuttle doesn’t hesitate to subvert old themes. “I’ve always loved murder ballads,” she said, “I have a natural love of horror movies, and gore, and creepy stories. But some of the old ballads are really misogynist. There’s a lot of violence towards women. So I flipped the perspective to a woman’s.” In “The River Knows,” co-written with Melody Walker, it’s the guy who gets hacked to death, for a change (“Washed the proof out of my hair/Crimson streaming down my skin so fair”).

“I’ll always want to come back to bluegrass,” Tuttle said, though she does play with musical convention on the new album. “It’s become such a loose term, anyway. Today, everyone’s listening to everything and blurring things together.”

The genre today is indeed quite different from that of its founder, Bill Monroe. “If Bill came to a bluegrass festival today,” said the fiddler-turned-violinist and composer Mark O’Connor, another lifelong border crosser, “he would hardly recognize the genre he helped create.

“Having said that,” O’Connor added, “if Bill Monroe were here today, he would hire Molly Tuttle for his Blue Grass Boys. Because she can sing the high lonesome and drive that rhythm on the flattop guitar. But then, Bill would have to consider a name change for the band.”

Sitting in Manhattan, Tuttle considered the options: “The Blue Grass Persons?” she suggested.

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