Home International Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway: Crooked Tree

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway: Crooked Tree


Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – Crooked Tree

Nonesuch – Out Now

An acclaimed master of the clawhammer banjo and crosspicking guitarist, while she’s been honoured at the International Bluegrass Music Awards and is a teacher of the tradition, Molly Tuttle has never actually made a full-on bluegrass album as such. That’s put to rights here with Jerry Douglas co-producing and contributing banjo alongside Ron Block (banjo, guitar, harmony), Mike Bub (upright bass), Jason Carter (fiddle), Tina Adair (harmony) and mandolinist Dominick Leslie as well as assorted special guests.

Crooked Tree kicks off, however, with just her upfront for the lightning banjo work of She’ll Change, a song about a woman who “lights up every silver screen” but is also a restless (“she’ll be on the move again/Before you even say the word ‘goodbye’”) – and arguably fickle (“if you dare to wish her well, you better watch yourself/’Cause all bets are all off, she’ll take you for everything”) – spirit.

The first of her guests arrive in Margo Price, who adds her harmonies to Flatland Girl, a ‘roots of her raising’ number written after revisiting the old farm in Illinois where her father grew up and learnt to play bluegrass, recalling how, when hard times hit (“You can plant your dreams in God’s green acre/Send ’em to Heaven in a green elevator/But prayers don’t run a tractor/Don’t promise the summer rain”), her grandpa sold up to “a man who could talk too pretty” from the Windy City.  Now “all that’s left is a photograph of the flatland fields of home”, but, as she declares, while “That way of life from long ago just withered on the vine …You can take a girl out of the heartland/But you can’t take the heartland from the heart/Of a flatland girl”.

Another bluegrass maestro, Billy Strings adds his guitar to the moody and swampy Dooley’s Farm, one of several co-writes with  Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show that reimagines the Blue Ridge Mountains moonshiner from the 2002 Dillards’ song Dooley as growing “something better in the back of the barn” to give a different high before being busted and his grandson taking things over because “Growing green must’ve ran in the family”.

Old Crow Medicine Show themselves step up next for the infectious fiddle-flavoured, chorus friendly Big Backyard,  the title a metaphor for a divided America (“My backyard sure is beautiful/But it’s getting hard to see through all the fences”) on a  good neighbours song about and sharing the land (“some folks say to stake your claim/And fence it in, but I see it different… It ain’t mine, it ain’t yours, it’s all of ours”).

The symbolic title track about two different trees in the forest follows, another autobiographical and personal song about being proud not to fit in and be part of the mainstream (“Perfect trees were driven down the mountain to the mill/They turned them into toothpicks and twenty dollar bills/It seemed the more the people took, the more they needed”) as she sings “can’t you see/A crooked tree won’t fit into the mill machine?/They’re left to grow wild and free/Oh, I’d rather be a crooked tree” because “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?”.

With a driving melody slightly evocative of Jolene and featuring a banjo breakdown solo, she turns to storytelling for Castilleja (named after an American flower species); an outlaw tale of rejected love (“You’re a prairie fire dancing in the wind/But you’re cold as a high sierra/Every time I try to bring your flower in”), jealousy “(“When I saw you at Mojave’s drinking slow/Pull up poison like an arrow/Was just tryna say how much I love you”) and murder (“I was quick, like a streak of lightning/I fired first and then he fell/Now I dream of Castilleja/A secret I will never tell”).

The murder ballad vein is again mined for the choppy traditional folk-influenced The River Knows, which draws on the familiar tale of women falling victim to male lust (“Thought he was a friend indeed/But a woman can’t trust a man in need”) ending up with her “best dress mangled and torn” though, when the character sings “Look to my hands all covered in red… Crimson streaming down my skin so fair”, you pretty much know it’s not her blood she’s washing away, leaving her secret buried in the wild rose bed.

Taking the pace back up, she’s joined by Sierra Hull for Over The Line, a banjo and blazing fiddle ‘head over heels in love’ song (“I’m tumbling down the mountain side for you/And I can’t say I mind when love goes over the line”) while Nashville Mess Around is another playful, bouncy number (“Just rolled in from Fond du Lac, I’m looking for some fun/Going down to Nashville town, see the ponies run… sing a little diddy/Raise some hell and giddy all the way down in Music City”) complete with a yodelling chorus but also trying to put off dilettantes moving there too because it’s cheaper and ending up making it more expensive for the residents (“It’s hard to hit the honky tonks if you ain’t got a dollar”) and advising aspiring country stars that audiences “won’t even clap their hands unless you are somebody”).

Taking it back to old school fiddle swaying waltz-time, teamed with Dan Tyminski, San Francisco Blues also speaks of gentrification and the rising cost of living making it impossible to afford to live where you grew up, the lyrics dropping in references to I Left My Heart In San Francisco and California Dreaming.

Returning to friskier bluegrass banjo, Goodbye Girl revisits the itchy feet of the opening track (“you gotta love leavin’ when you’re with goodbye girl”), followed by the last of the guest appearances with Gillian Welch on the feminist Side Saddle where, through the rodeo riding narrator, Tuttle uses the metaphor of not riding a  horse in the accepted female fashion (“I just wanna ride bow-legged like the boys”) as a comment on not conforming to society’s rules as expectations of women.

It ends with another directly autobiographical song, Grass Valley, on which she recalls being taken at the age of 11 to the bluegrass festival of the title by her dad (who guests on vocals), revisiting it now she’s older, with the “same songs being played, the singing in the shade of the pine trees”, and seeing another generation ready to follow in her footsteps (“A shy kid with a mandolin, I could see her on the sideline staring at me/She looks just like I did the first time that I came to Grass Valley”), another crooked tree with strength and determination in its outstretched branches. In a forest of Americana saplings, Tuttle is a sturdy evergreen whose roots cling deep.

Crooked Tree is out now:

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