At just 26 years old, Molly Tuttle has already made history. An acclaimed bluegrass performer and teacher, renowned for her clawhammer banjo and cross-picking guitar work, Tuttle was not only the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award in 2017, she was nominated for an unprecedented six IBMA awards that year. And she did it again in 2018. Accolades continued by being named Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year as well.
Tuttle will bring her exceptional guitar skills, beautiful vocals, and a backing band featuring some of the best musicians in Nashville to Guitar Masters at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace this Thursday.
A gifted acoustic guitarist who has also made a name for herself as a songwriter and vocalist, she rose from playing in her father's bluegrass band to becoming one of the leading lights of modern folk, bluegrass and Americana. Tuttle’s solo career launched in 2017 with the release of “Rise,” she followed it with her first full-length effort, “When You're Ready,” which arrived in stores last month.
Molly Tuttle's father, Jack, is a well-respected Bay Area bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and instructor who led a family band, the Tuttles, and encouraged his children to share his love of music. Born in 1993, Molly was 8 years old when she began playing guitar, and by the time she was 11 she was good enough to play on-stage with her father. She recorded an album with her dad, "The Old Apple Tree," when she was 13, and would add banjo and mandolin to her repertoire, though her main focus was still on the flatpicking guitar style.
In her late teens, Tuttle was recognized as a rising star. She was awarded merit scholarships to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music for music and composition, received the Foundation for Bluegrass Music's Hazel Dickens Memorial Scholarship, won the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at the Merlefest Music Festival, was named best female vocalist and best guitar player by the Northern California Bluegrass Society, and appeared on "A Prairie Home Companion" — all in a single year, 2012.
By 2014, Tuttle joined the all-female contemporary bluegrass group the Goodbye Girls, and she recorded a duet album with fiddler John Mailander. While she was widely celebrated as a bluegrass player, Tuttle was also influenced by many others, and began writing songs that reflected a sensibility more akin to contemporary folk.
As Tuttle matured, her musical tastes soon ranged from Bob Dylan and Gillian Welch to The Smiths and Neko Case. Because she kept seeing Townes Van Zandt referenced to by songwriters she admired, Tuttle dug into his catalog and found “White Freightliner Blues.” Her own exceptional rendition has become a showcase for her nimble playing, as well as a graceful nod to her musical heroes. And the circle continues. Her own instructional videos of the song online have been discovered by the next generation of pickers, who look to her as a role model and for inspiration.
“I love seeing any young person trying to play one of my songs or just learning something from me,” Tuttle said in a recent conversation from her Nashville home. “One of my goals is to inspire the next generation, especially young girls, to play guitar. I think if girls see a woman doing something, it helps them think, ‘I can do that, too.’”
"I’ve never really seen limitations on guitar for me as a woman,” she remarked. “I remember, I was first drawn to it in a really natural way when I was a kid. I just liked the mellow sound of it. So I don’t remember specifically what drew me to it, but I remember seeing guitars around, and I told my parents I wanted a guitar. That was after I’d tried like three different instruments and failed at all of them. I tried to play fiddle, and I think I got tired of just not sounding good on it. Guitar is a lot less abrasive when you’re first starting out. I had a tiny guitar when I started, and my dad showed me some stuff on it. I really liked that you could play it while you were singing. I never thought about it being a physically demanding instrument, even when I first played and my fingers got really sore. It felt pretty natural to me.”
Her musical influences that rose from the geographic diversity of her life experiences definitely left their mark. Tuttle said, “I got exposed to lots of different kinds of music in California, and then especially when I was at Berklee, there were all sorts of different kinds of music going on all the time at school. Then, obviously, Nashville is one of the most amazing music cities in the world. I think living in California was influential, growing up there. I really relate to the Bay Area and a lot of my songs are still inspired by California. It’s where my soul is, still.”
For the past decade or so, the bluegrass community has had Tuttle to itself. It’s time to share her with a much wider world. She’s ready.
Rick Kreiser is the founder of Guitar Masters concert series.