Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway performs at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard as part of the First Citizens Bank Front Row series. | Photo courtesy Molly Tuttle

Rising bluegrass star Molly Tuttle is using her music to break barriers. Her feminist twist looks back on the genre’s history and brings it into a modern, progressive context. This year, Tuttle and her band, The Golden Highway, will take the stage 9 p.m. June 9 at the Spoleto Festival USA during the First Citizens Bank Front Row Series.

Nicole Taney, the director of artistic planning and operations at Spoleto Festival USA, said the flexible programming allows for new artists like Tuttle to join the lineup. Taney said she is excited she could add Tuttle to the program because she’s been on her radar for a while. 

“I think that what happens year over year at the festival is that we can make those programmatic changes, we can challenge folks,” Taney said.  

Tuttle is one of the most accomplished guitar players in the genre. She was named guitar player of 2017 and 2018 by the International Bluegrass Music Association, making her the first woman to win the award. These accolades came from a lifetime of love for music and the bluegrass genre, but Crooked Tree, Tuttle’s fourth album, is her first full bluegrass album. 

She said it took her awhile to find her voice because the genre is historically male-dominated, and she struggles with feeling like an imposter as a California native playing music rooted in the South.

“Even though I grew up with the music, it took me a long time to really figure out how to write songs that still felt true to who I was, but fit in that medium,” Tuttle said in an interview. “And I think it really clicked for me last year when I started writing the songs and drawing on stories from my life and from my family.”

She said a song on her album that holds immense personal meaning is the title song, “Crooked Tree.” The lyrics came from Tuttle’s experience growing up with alopecia (she lost her hair when she was 3), and is co-written with her friend Melody Walker, who grew up with scoliosis:

“Oh, 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” 

“I’ve had alopecia for 26 years now and I feel like it took me probably 20 years to accept it,” Tuttle said. “So yeah, my heart goes out to anyone who’s recently lost their hair or had a big physical change, because it really takes a long time to accept things like that.”

It’s OK to be different

Tuttle wants her music to tell the world it’s OK to be different, and this song helps her do that.

Journalist Jewly Hight recently wrote an article for NPR about how musicians like Tuttle and Maren Morris are using their music to tell their stories in new ways.

“Elements of Tuttle’s progressive worldview serve as organic, defining features of the backdrop on Crooked Tree,” wrote Hight. “As solidified as certain bluegrass song forms and tropes can seem, her approach to them isn’t just knowledgeable; she subtly shifts them towards the particulars of her experience and concerns.” 

Tuttle used the album to bring a female perspective into a predominantly male musical genre. She said working with musicians like Gillian Welch, Margo Price and Sierra Hull on her new album was inspiring. She also cited the late Hazel Dickens as a role model.

“I got to meet [Hazel] a couple times,” Tuttle said. “She’s another one who [wrote] bluegrass songs from a more feminist perspective. And when she was doing it, I think it was really radical, because she was performing in like the 1970s and ‘80s and writing these songs from a female perspective. It was especially rare back then.”

Tuttle’s music is also deeply rooted in her love for her family. Her grandparents live in Illinois and she grew up visiting their farm. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, Tuttle’s dad would take her family to bluegrass festivals. At age 8, she got her first guitar and soon she was going to festival jams with other musicians there and learning new songs. Tuttle’s dad accompanies her by singing on the final track of her album, “Grass Valley.” 

“I ended up putting it last because I wanted people to hear all the other songs and then hear why I fell in love with the music itself,” Tuttle said. “It’s been passed down for three generations now — my love for the music began with my family.”

 Riley Utley is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.