On her first release as a bandleader, Molly Tuttle displays all the talents and traits that have helped her rise to the summit of the modern bluegrass pyramid. On Crooked Tree, she’s also invited most of her peer group including Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Ketch Secor, and Dominick Leslie, as well as grizzled veterans Jerry Douglas (who produced the record), Ron Block, Jason Carter, Gillian Welch, Mike Bub, Darol Anger, Dan Tyminski, and Viktor Krauss, to produce a strong recording her growing fanbase will adore.
Opening with “She’ll Change,” a tune co-written with Secor that she frequently opens her live shows with, the CD immediately set a furious pace and high expectations for her newest record that she mostly sustains throughout its thirteen tunes. Her twin flatpicking guitar/Dobro duet with Strings and Douglas on “Dooley’s Farm” showcases all three of these great instrumentalists on a tune she penned with Secor about a Vietnam veteran turned illicit cannabis farmer that is sort of the backside of Strings’ “Dust In A Baggie” or Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” pharmaceutical outlaw tales, delivered with a feminist empowering twist.
“Castelleja,” penned by Tuttle and Secor, is an epic tale of banditos and California gold that inches towards “Pancho & Lefty” in its poetic vision and language. Great songwriting here, with lovely interplay between Molly’s guitar and Dominick Leslie on mandolin. “The River Knows” showcases Molly’s innovative clawhammer guitar style, driving a moody mountain modal melody about a woman scorning a male suitor that ends unlike every bluegrass ‘take a little walk with me down by the river’ murder ballad. It does feel odd, however, there is not a single instrumental on a CD with this much musical firepower and composing chops.
“Side Saddle,” which pairs Tuttle on vocals with the song’s author, the great Gillian Welch, is a perfectly ironic and catchy cowboy swing tune for a young female artist. The tune delivers a great mandolin solo from Leslie and an exquisitely emotional banjo break from Ron Block. It’s another straight-up, women can do it all, anthem perfect for someone at the forefront of bluegrass’ burgeoning movement toward inclusion and gender fluidity.
The closing tune, “Grass Valley,” opens and closes with synth swirls and electronic layers inspired by some of Billy Strings’ creative studio effects explorations. This tale of Molly’s introduction into the bluegrass community at the famous Grass Valley bluegrass festival is a heartfelt and arrow-true tale of self-discovery and awareness of a future in music.