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In bluegrass, as in life, Molly Tuttle would rather be a 'Crooked Tree'

Molly Tuttle is right at home at The Station Inn in Nashville, Tenn.
Joseph Ross for NPR
Molly Tuttle is right at home at The Station Inn in Nashville, Tenn.

This is part of a series of features from All Things Considered on first-time Grammy nominees, ahead of the February 5 awards. Read the profiles on Omar Apollo and Muni Long.

It's blooming down in Nashville, let's go light up the town
Raise a glass and drink it fast before they bust it down
Shine up your shoes, come on let's do the Nashville mess around
– Molly Tuttle, from "Nashville Mess Around"

While public health restrictions kept it dormant during the pandemic, the Station Inn still got a shout-out from the Grammy Awards.

In March 2021, the Grammy telecast aired a pre-produced segment about the celebrated bluegrass venue in Nashville, Tenn. – one of several independently run clubs profiled that year. In that feature, owner J.T. Gray promised a national audience that the club would reopen: "That's going to be a celebration like never before," he said. "It's going to be a big party."

Gray died at age 75 the following week, and did not live to see his club reopen. But the Station Inn once again features music seven days a week.

In Nashville, the hub of the country music industry, it remains the place to hear bluegrass and other acoustic roots music. And though it's now surrounded by tall, glassy apartment and office buildings – "boxed in like the old man's home in the movie Up!" as country star Dierks Bentley has written – it certainly looks the part of a classic honky-tonk: low ceilings, vintage concert posters, neon lights, cold beer as advertised by those neon lights.

Molly Tuttle made it a point to see a show there when she moved to Nashville eight years ago. It's one of the first places she played in Nashville. And when she made her 2022 album Crooked Tree, it's where she made it a point to play the album release concert.

"If you love bluegrass, you've heard of the Station Inn in Nashville," she told NPR.

<em>Crooked Tree </em>is Tuttle's attempt to give something back to the bluegrass community.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
Joseph Ross for NPR
Crooked Tree is Tuttle's attempt to give something back to the bluegrass community.

Crooked Tree is Tuttle's third album, but it is in some ways a reintroduction. It is her first record to fully embrace the style of bluegrass, where she achieved notoriety as a guitarist. It is, in part, a retelling of her own origin story in music. And it has won Tuttle her first Grammy nominations — not just for best bluegrass album, but to her great surprise, for best new artist overall.

"I felt like when I was making this record, I just really wanted to give that [bluegrass] community that supported me so much through the year, something that they would love," she said. "And so that [bluegrass nomination] felt really good. A few minutes later, I started getting all these calls and texts and I didn't know what was going on. I was like, 'Wait, did something else happen?'"

Grass Valley

My heart opened to the sound
I didn't know it then, but my life turned a page
– from "Grass Valley"

Tuttle grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. – now in the heart of Silicon Valley. Her father is not in the tech industry.

Jack Tuttle did grow up playing bluegrass in rural Illinois. To hear his daughter tell it, he realized he didn't want to work on the family farm (the one celebrated on her song "Flatland Girl"), so he headed out to the San Francisco Bay Area, attracted in part by a progressive bluegrass movement driven by genre-straddlers such as David Grisman, Tony Rice and Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia.

In 1979, he found work teaching banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar full-time as a resident instructor at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto.

"Growing up, I just knew [my father] had all these other students who are the same age as me," Tuttle said. "He used to host these, like, bluegrass jams and bluegrass classes that I would go to sometimes at the music store. And then when I got a little older, we'd go to all these bluegrass festivals together and it was so much fun."

On the song "Grass Valley," Tuttle sings about the wonder and attraction of those bluegrass festivals north of San Francisco she went to as a kid: "Deadheads and tie-dye array / Dawg music devotees / Like nothing I had ever heard or seen / It was jamgrass for the hippies / Old stuff from the fifties / Just about nothing in between," she sings.

Tuttle's father sings on that track – and also still teaches. He taught music to all three of his children, and for a while, with the help of vocalist AJ Lee, fostered a family band. Molly Tuttle had good memories of that, too.

"You're bandmates," she said. "But then also you know each other so well and you're all living together ... it's so relaxed. You go in the living room and play and then someone else starts to come in and jam with you. It was a lot of fun."

Side Saddle

I don't wanna ride side saddlе
Side saddle, side saddle
I just wanna ride bow-legged
Bow-legged like the boys

– from "Side Saddle"

Molly Tuttle went from Northern California to Boston and the Berklee College of Music, where she studied in the American Roots Music Program. She moved to Nashville in 2015 and – not wanting to be pigeonholed as a bluegrass musician – quickly found her way into a number of overlapping Americana and folk music circles.

Yet her bluegrass talent came to the fore. In 2017, she became the first woman to be nominated by the International Bluegrass Music Association as guitarist of the year. She won – and repeated in 2018.

Tuttle says the bluegrass community has become more inclusive over the years.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
Joseph Ross for NPR
Tuttle says the bluegrass community has become more inclusive over the years.

She said she was surprised to hear she was the first female nominee – even after acknowledging the male-dominated cultures of bluegrass and of playing guitar.

"Like even just going into a guitar store, I kind of bond with my female friends who play guitar because we're all like, 'Oh, we get treated like we know nothing about guitars when we walk into a guitar store,'" she said. (That hasn't happened in a while, she said, because she now avoids going into guitar stores she doesn't know.)

One of Tuttle's early heroes, the pioneering bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens, wrote a book called Working Girl Blues, which explained her songs and the stories behind them.

"Every time she went out to the merch table, there were men hitting on her and she just had to get used to it and kind of ... toughen up herself to that," Tuttle said. "I don't want to have to change my personality and grow this tough exterior to just be in this industry and go out and play music."

But Tuttle noted the bluegrass community has come a long way on gender equality, even since her youth. "I do feel like it's changed a lot and there's so much more awareness around treating everyone equally and including everyone," she said.

Another early inspiration was the singer-songwriter Gillian Welch. On "Side Saddle," Tuttle's anthem to carving out a place of her own in a male-dominated genre, she brought in Welch as a guest artist.

"Some of her songs ... directly inspired the songs on my album," Tuttle said. "So that was really kind of a bucket list thing."

She'll Change

One woman, many wonders
One road, many ways
Just when you think you know her, shе'll change

– from "She'll Change"

Her bluegrass bona fides aside, Tuttle's debut album When You're Ready blended her picking ability with a more expansive singer-songwriter palette. Her second album ... But I'd Rather Be With You was one of covers from across the pop music spectrum, and equally agnostic on the notion of style or genre.

Crooked Tree is unambiguously a bluegrass record. She enlisted Dobro master Jerry Douglas as producer for the album, and has assembled a new touring band, Golden Highway, with traditional instrumentation and vocal harmonies.

"I don't think of myself as strictly bluegrass," Tuttle said. "I know that I've always listened to other styles of music. I've always played other styles of music and written other styles of music. But it did feel good with this last record to just kind of lean into that part of who I was."

Tuttle said she had missed the jam sessions, the festivals – the communal aspect to bluegrass, especially during the isolation of the pandemic.

The album also features a number of dream guests – among them Margo Price, Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Billy Strings. She says it was "cathartic, in a way," to let herself think about making a "full-on" bluegrass record.

"Then the songs started flowing and it was just like a door opened," she said. "And I knew I needed to make that album."

Crooked Tree

A river never wonders why it flows around the bend
A mountain doesn't question how it rose up from the land
So who am I to wish I wasn't just the way I am? Who am I?

– from "Crooked Tree"

Tuttle puts her spin on several bluegrass tropes on Crooked Tree. There's an inverted murder ballad ("The River Knows"), a cannabis take on a bootlegging song ("Dooley's Farm"), a story-song about a mysterious outlaw ("Castilleja"). She laments that the rising cost of living has forced many artists out of her home region in "San Francisco Blues."

But the album is also full of personal statements, informed by autobiography. The title track on Crooked Tree tells of two neighboring trees – one straight enough to be chopped down and fed into a mill, and another that's left to grow "wild and free." It's not hard to tell which one Tuttle identifies with.

Tuttle had her album release party at the Station Inn.
/ Joseph Ross for NPR
Joseph Ross for NPR
Tuttle had her album release party at the Station Inn.

The song is also inspired by her experience growing up with alopecia, the autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. She says it came about after a long journey of growing up wearing hats, then wigs, then learning to talk about her wig, and eventually growing comfortable going without. She says the song is about "embracing your differences."

"That's for me a moment in my shows where if I feel in the right mood, I can talk about it a little bit and even take off my wig and play that song," Tuttle said. "And so I'm kind of slowly learning to express that side of who I am in my music as well."

At her album release party at The Station Inn, she announced it was getting hot on stage – and that it was time to remove the wig – and after a preamble from Jerry Douglas on the resonator guitar, she and her band launched into the title track.

"So who am I to wish I wasn't just the way I am? Who am I?" she sang. And then she hit the chorus. "Oh, I'd rather be a crooked tree."

Want more? Read profiles on the first-time Grammy nominees we featured last year: Barlow & Bear, Saweetie, Arooj Aftab and Jimmie Allen.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.