President Theodore Roosevelt advised the United States in years past to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” IBMA’s 2018 Guitar Player Of The Year, 25-year-old Molly Tuttle, speaks softly. But she strides onstage confidently, wielding giant-sized, staggering chops on lead guitar and banjo. Her singing is turning heads and touching hearts as well, as she presents mostly all original music in a uniquely compelling, traditionally-edged yet thoughtfully introspective voice.

“I love coming up with interesting guitar parts that don’t really fit—that don’t sound like any specific genre or any other guitar players,” Molly says. “I am hoping to create my own sound —to find some new ground.”

Tuttle has successfully staked out new ground, taking Nashville and the wide bluegrass world by storm during the past three years since moving from her native California in 2015, via Berklee College Of Music in Boston, where she attended on merit scholarships for music and composition. In April 2016, she took home first place at the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at MerleFest, and later that fall, she was honored with an instrumentalist Momentum Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association during World Of Bluegrass week in Raleigh, N.C., where her band also showcased.

   When she’s not touring with the Molly Tuttle Band or a band of college friends called The Goodbye Girls or in some other configuration (perhaps a reunion with her family group, The Tuttles with AJ Lee), Molly is playing the guitar. She plays the guitar 24/7. I know this because she rented a downstairs apartment from me when she first moved to Nashville. The hardwood floors in my living room and kitchen more often than not vibrated with the sound of Molly’s guitar, along with the odd Hazel Dickens song or banjo tune. It was wonderful! When she’s not practicing the guitar or touring, she’s learning, writing, or recording new songs. Her demeanor may be gentle, but her creative focus is steely-eyed, persistent, and powerful.

Her gigs include top-tier festivals and radio and television venues such as A Prairie Home Companionand Bluegrass Underground. Molly graced the April 2017 cover of Acoustic Guitarmagazine, and she’s been featured in a number of bluegrass and roots-based publications in print and online. The fall of 2017, she returned to Raleigh as a performer at the IBMA Awards Show and was nominated in the Guitar, Female Vocalist, and Emerging Artist categories. She made history by taking home the guitar trophy—the first time a woman had even been nominated in the category in the 27-year history of IBMA Awards. “I want to be a role model for young girls to play lead guitar,” Tuttle said in her acceptant speech.

“It was truly one of the biggest honors I could ever imagine,” Molly says on her website. “I’ll never forget getting to walk the red carpet and perform at the IBMA Awards with two of my biggest heroes, Alice Gerrard and Laurie Lewis! Seeing Laurie induct Hazel & Alice into the IBMA Hall Of Fame meant so much to me because they are such a big part of why I started singing and writing songs. Thanks to the IBMA for recognizing these incredible women, and thanks Laurie and Alice for inspiring so many with your music!”

Tuttle signed with Compass Records in October 2017, the Nashville-based label owned by Alison Brown and Garry West. “We’ve been fans of Molly since we saw her play an IBMA showcase with The Tuttles and AJ Lee when she was just a teenager,” Brown says. “Even back then, her talent was so obvious that we told her whenever she was ready, we’d roll out the red carpet for her at Compass. It’s been great to watch her grow and evolve into such a stellar player, singer, writer, and person. She’s the first female to emerge from the bluegrass world with such an amazing command of the guitar, coupled with a gorgeous voice and songwriting chops to complement her virtuosity. Combining all those talents with a female perspective makes just about everything Molly does incredibly unique.”

Longtime bluegrass fans may be reminded of Alison herself at Molly’s age. “Molly is a mile ahead of where I was at her age, and I’m incredibly proud of her,” Brown added. “In spite of all the diversification we’ve seen over the past 25 years in bluegrass music, it’s still a tough row to hoe for female musicians. But on the positive side, there are so many more women playing bluegrass than there were back then. Many of them are band leaders and are, in my opinion, making some of the most exciting and accessible music in the genre. So we’ve arrived at an interesting tipping point in bluegrass where women can create opportunities for other women and help to bring along the next generation of female players. That’s a huge sea change and, if we play it right, I think that the challenges will be fewer and the opportunities even greater in the future.”

In February 2018, Tuttle and fellow Californian Keith Little were recognized with $25,000 Artist Awards from the FreshGrass Foundation and Whippoorwill Arts. Last spring, Molly was endorsed by Preston Thompson Guitars; she picked out her own inlay patterns and a striking sunburst finish. Tuttle and two-time IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year Sierra Hull, another Nashville-based artist currently turning the bluegrass world on its ear, are currently featured in a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum called “American Currents: The Music of 2017,” which opened in March 2018. The exhibit provides a behind-the-scenes look at major country music happenings during the past year, according to a museum press release. Highlights of 2017 are represented by Tuttle and Hull, along with the Brothers Osborne, Kane Brown, Eric Church, Luke Combs, Maren Morris, Randy Travis, and Chris Young, among others.

Also in March, Tuttle was featured in a “Masters In Mechanics” interview online with Cracking The Code, which features a close-up video recorded by a small camera mounted on her guitar, in an effort to analyze her fluid transitions from rhythm to quick-paced waves of cross-picked arpeggios.

“Watching Molly Tuttle blossom into the compelling performer she has become has been a distinct pleasure, both here and in California,” says Randy Pitts, a retired Nashville booking agent and the former Artistic Director at the Berkeley-based Freight & Salvage venue. “I probably don’t have any unique perspective understanding the phenomenon that is Molly Tuttle, other than that I’ve been privileged to watch and hear it longer than most. I’ll also confess that I get quite a kick out of watching musicians’ jaws drop when they see and hear her play ‘White Freightliner Blues’ for the first time.

“Jack, her dad, and my wife Chris Lewis were playing in a band together, The Fog City Ramblers, when Chris and I met. We’ve been family friends for a long time,” Pitts says. “Fog City played every week at Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco, as well as other venues and festivals. Molly’s aunt, Sully Roddy, a prominent traditional country music DJ in the South Bay, has been a friend of mine since before Molly was born. Jack has been a bluegrass music teacher at Palo Alto’s Gryphon Stringed Instruments since at least the early ’80s. He plays all the instruments, as well as playing in bands. He’s responsible for, among many other South Bay bluegrass musicians, the early development of The Tuttles and AJ Lee.”

“Molly and her younger brothers, Michael and Sullivan, appeared in a video that was shot and produced by Jack, featuring a smokin’ version of ‘El Cumbanchero’ that has received somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,750,000 views on YouTube when they were quite young. I remember it created quite a stir. Molly and Jack made a recording of duets in 2007, and they also finished second in a duo competition on A Prairie Home Companionin the early 2000s. The Tuttles with AJ Lee played the Strawberry Music Festival outside Yosemite as early as 2010. It was at my behest that Charlie Cran booked them. That is my one verysmall contribution to her career.

“Like a lot of kids whose folks are bluegrass enthusiasts in northern California, Molly and her siblings were fixtures at the CBA Festival in Grass Valley from the time they were very young,” Pitts continues. “In fact, I first remember her mom, Maureen, pushing her around the grounds in a stroller. It’s safe to say that Molly inherited her aptitude and feel for music from her dad, as well as learning good practice habits, discipline, and knowledge of the traditional repertoire. But that doesn’t explain the unique combination of talents that make her what she is today—one of the most accomplished and unique new performers to emerge from the crowd in ages. She’s an amazing flatpicker, as befits an IBMA Guitarist Of The year, and a startlingly accomplished bluegrass and old-time banjo player as well. Her original songs are unique and compelling; she interprets artists as diverse as Hazel Dickens, John Hartford, Keith Whitley, and Doc Watson. She was also an IBMA Female Vocalist nominee in 2017. And this is only the beginning. She’s only, what, 25?”

Tuttle began performing publicly at 11 and recorded her first album at 13. “I really looked up to my dad,” Molly says. “I always heard him playing music when I was growing up. When I was eight, I asked for a guitar, and he brought a little Baby Taylor home and started showing me some simple things. From then on, I was taken with the guitar. It seemed very natural to me.”

After high school, she ended up at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I wanted to deepen my knowledge of music, and Berklee seemed like a great fit. They have an American roots music program, which was great for me, coming from a bluegrass background. A lot of my guitar teachers were electric players who specialized in jazz and contemporary improvisation, and they pushed me to learn theory and get out of my comfort zone.”

Tuttle began jamming with young California fiddler John Mailander when she first arrived at Berklee, and he was included in the initial Molly Tuttle Band line-up along with Wes Corbett on banjo and sometimes Sam Grisman on bass. Molly describes all three similarly, noting their technical abilities, but also tasteful skills and the ability to compliment a song. Mailander has recently accepted a job with Bruce Hornsby’s band, The Noisemakers.

Tuttle’s current band includes Hasee Ciaccio (bass), Wes Corbett (banjo), and Duncan Wickel (fiddle). “Hasee has a really awesome feel on the bass, and is a great singer, too,” she notes. “I met her at Folk Alliance. She played with the Barefoot Movement for a while, and now she lives across the street from me.” Wickel’s previous gigs run the gamut from classical and jazz to Irish and roots music, and he’s another Berklee grad.

The band is heavily booked through next year, but she still makes time for new and old musical collaborations, including recent dates in April with The Goodbye Girls, followed by a tour of the U.K. with Americana artist Rachel Baiman (fiddle), formerly of Ten String Symphony. “I get burned out if I’m always doing the same thing musically,” Tuttle says. “In The Goodbye Girls, we play a lot of old-time stuff and it’s really high energy, which is refreshing. They are some of my best friends, and it’s fun to travel and play music with them.” The band includes Allison de Groot (banjo), Lena Jonsson (fiddle), and Britanny Karlson (bass).

Nashville’s favorite pastime is co-writing, and Tuttle’s body of original work has increased since moving there. “I’ve written with Kai Welch, who produced my album,” she notes. Tuttle’s seven-song EP, Rise, was released independently in 2017. “Kai and I co-wrote three or four of the songs on the album. It was stuff that I’d already almost finished, so we finished them together. Another person I co-wrote with for the album was Korby Lenker. We’ve just written one song together, but I look forward to more songs.”

The Molly Tuttle band is clearly rooted in bluegrass music, but they regularly branch off into exciting, new territory. “We’re trying to be an original band,” Molly says. “We do mostly songs that I’ve written. If we do a cover, we try to do it like an original—almost like we rewrote it.”

In addition to her father, Tuttle says she was heavily influenced by Dave Rawlings when she was a teenager. “That’s when I was first starting to improvise, and I would learn his solos. Later, I was influenced more by David Grier, and now I get together and jam with him because he lives close by in Nashville. That’s pretty exciting. Clarence White and Tony Rice were early influences, too.”

Tuttle started out on piano, “which didn’t really stick,” she says, before picking up guitar at age eight and banjo at ten. “After about a year, I got to the point of actually being able to play tunes, and then I wanted to practice,” she recalls. “My dad would sit down with me for five or ten minutes to show me a little thing, whenever I was in the mood to play. But by the time I was ten or eleven, I had friends who were playing, and that made a huge difference. They were more advanced than I was and they could improvise, so I wanted to be able to do that. Frankie Nagle (lead guitar, banjo and vocals) was the first friend my age that I played music with. It was fun to sort of keep up with her. She was practicing a lot, so I thought, ‘Oh, I should practice more, too.’”

Molly grew up playing in a family band with her younger brothers Sullivan and Michael, on guitar and mandolin respectively. Both are accomplished musicians who are in college studying science and engineering. AJ Lee, Molly’s duo partner in The Tuttles with AJ Lee, released a self-titled EP album in 2017 and currently plays in a Santa Cruz-based bluegrass band called Blue Summit with Molly’s brother, Sullivan.

Tuttle, reserved by nature, has evolved into a warm and personable, albeit quirky, emcee and front person, sometimes even performing solo. “There was kind of a learning curve,” she smiles. “At first, it was really out of my comfort zone to talk onstage at all. I didn’t want to say anything. Sometimes, I still have a show when I can’t think of anything to say, but it’s getting easier. I have fun with it. I like to interact with the audience and joke around. Playing solo is fun, but it’s also kind of scary. If I’m taking a solo or something, I’m used to having someone there to support the solo. It’s interesting being there by myself and having to build up the energy all by myself. If I make a mistake, there’s no one to help keep the song going or to hide behind. It’s pretty fun though, and it’s a good feeling to know I can do this by myself.”

Tuttle’s early vocal influences were Bill Monroe, Hazel Dickens, Laurie Lewis, and Kathy Kallick, but she gives a lot of credit to Palo Alto-based vocal coach Julie Valentine. “She lived about three houses away from where I grew up,” Molly says. “I didn’t have good breath support when I was a teenager, so I was always straining my voice and didn’t have control over my tone or my upper range. Julie helped me loosen up and find my own voice. Before that, I was just imitating other people.”

There are precious few female lead guitar players in bluegrass or any other genre of music, for that matter. Courtney Hartman and Rebecca Frazier come to mind, as well as Louisa Branscomb, Alison Brown, and Dale Ann Bradley. Sierra Hull is an ace guitarist, although we usually see her with a mandolin. “I don’t know why, unless it’s because there are not many role models for young girls playing lead guitar,” Tuttle says. “It’s weird. When I was at Berklee, I would take classes in lots of other genres, but there was never another woman in any of my guitar classes. I have met more girls now who are playing lead because they’ve seen Courtney Hartman [Della Mae] play, or other young women. I hope to see more.”

In addition to the new Preston Thompson, Tuttle plays a Huss & Dalton guitar, built by a luthier in Virginia, and she plays a Huber banjo. “I kind of like playing clawhammer banjo when I’m singing by myself, but Scruggs-style is really fun, too, in a band setting.”

One of the new songs on her current CD, Save This Heart, features Molly’s clawhammer guitar playing, something she picked up from Michael Stadler at a guitar class in California which incorporates frailing banjo technique on the guitar. Molly also teaches at a lot of camps and workshops. “My dad was a full-time teacher and I started teaching when I was 13 or 14,” she explains. “If he had extra students, he would send them to me. I would teach out of my house, and if I had any questions about what to do or what to show them, he had all these teaching materials. It was really helpful. I taught kids at first, and then when I was 17 or 18, I taught at the California Bluegrass Association Camp that I’d attended for a long time, and I assisted my dad there. It’s more for adults. Other teachers saw me there and asked me to come to their camps. It’s pretty easy for me. I almost feel like I’m flipping a switch.”

Molly’s debut solo Risewas produced by Kai Welch, who previously worked with artists like Abigail Washburn, Bobby Bare, Jr., and The Greencards. Molly’s song “Lightning In A Jar,” which uses the futile effort of capturing lightning bugs in a jar as a metaphor for trying to hang on to a relationship that wasn’t destined to last, has had more than 1 million plays on Spotify. She has released official videos for four songs from the EP (“Good Enough,” “You Didn’t Call My Name,” “Save This Heart,” and “Lightning In A Jar”), and her popular cover of the John Hartford classic “Gentle On My Mind” has become a YouTube and live show favorite.

Molly is currently working on a full length follow-up album for Compass Records. Look for her at festivals in Virginia, California, Utah, Oregon, Ontario, Maine, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, and France this summer and fall ( Listening to Molly play and sing is kind of like discovering your new favorite kind of ice cream—an unexpected treat. When asked what she hopes listeners experience when they listen to her music, she doesn’t hesitate. “I hope it can bring comfort to and move people. I wrote some of these songs to try to bring positivity to tough situations. Really, I just want to bring people joy.”

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