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Bluegrass guitar picker Molly Tuttle is at the top of her profession. Named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year, she was drawn to this traditional American art form from the cradle. But the story of how her career evolved is not entirely traditional. Tom Casciato reports as part of our arts and culture series, "CANVAS."
Few women get named to those greatest all-time guitar player lists that come out now and then.
But, as special correspondent Tom Casciato reports, there's one playing bluegrass who appears to be on her way.
It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Molly Tuttle is at the top of her profession. Her profession is bluegrass guitar picker, the first woman named International Bluegrass Music Association's guitar player of the year.
She was drawn to this traditional American art form from the cradle, but the story of how she got from here to here is not entirely traditional. Start with the title song of her most recent album, "Crooked Tree".
Molly Tuttle, Musician:
I wrote that song with my friend Melody Walker. We had seen a quote by Tom Waits. It kind of said like, when they chop down the trees in a forest, the crooked trees are the ones left standing.
Melody grew up having scoliosis and had to wear back brace all through school. And, for me, I lost my hair to alopecia when I was 3 years old. I always felt like I looked way different than other kids. I got teased for it.
When I stood on stage, that was something that made me feel good about myself. So I had this hat that I would always wear. And I would, like, pull it down really low over my face.
She learned to play stringed instruments from her dad, Jack Tuttle, who taught at the local music shop in Palo Alto, California, the town where Molly also attended high school.
When I transitioned to Palo Alto High, it was like a clean break, where I could be whoever I wanted, basically. And that's when I started wearing wigs, which was a huge relief, because I didn't get those comments and, like, the whispers or people staring at me anymore.
But it made me feel like I was keeping an even bigger secret, because now people — well, at least I felt like people couldn't tell as much that I had alopecia.
Folks could tell she was becoming quite a musician, performing with her father and brothers, with their friend A.J. on mandolin.
It was called The Tuttles with A.J. Lee, which is not the most catchy band name in the world.
She honed her craft jamming at bluegrass festivals, where, at least once, she found herself honing her feminism as well.
And how a bluegrass jam works is usually, like, you just pass around solos in a circle, basically.
And so I joined this jam, and I knew most of the people in the jam, but there was one guy that I had never met before. And it was kind of going around. When it gets to me, he leans over me and points to the banjo player on my left and says, you take the solo.
When you're a woman in music, a lot of times, you're second-guessing yourself. Well, was — are they treating me like this because I'm a woman? But, in that instance I was like, OK, I know this was real. I'm not making this up.
Did you read music growing up?
No, not at all.
I learned by ear, and I didn't know anything about what chords were called. And that was a struggle when I got to music college. They kind of rank you in different areas, like music theory, reading. And I ranked so low. I got like all the lowest rankings on everything. It was like one to five, and I was like one, one, one, one, one.
What she did know at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music was how to write, play and sing a song. Professionally, she was on her way. But she says always performing in a wig was nagging at her.
I decided, like, I can't, like, keep this a secret from my fans anymore. I want to talk about it openly.
It's Alopecia Awareness Month, so I thought I would start off with a reveal, taking off my wig.
Nowadays, you can find her raising funds for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.
Meanwhile, the fellow who skipped her solo at that long-ago bluegrass jam might want to listen to this. Fellow musicians marvel.
Ketch Secor, Musician:
It's pretty unparalleled. It's like the fretboard is a road that she's been driving down her whole life.
One of her frequent collaborators is Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor.
And like, if I had to pick a surgeon, I'd say, give me one with a hand like Molly Tuttle's.
she's also taken unexpected turns for an artist known for bluegrass. On an album she did of cover tunes, she included the Rolling Stones' psychedelic classic "She's a Rainbow."
Like, out of context, to me, that sounds kind of like a feminist empowerment song. And I loved the piano part. I instantly wanted to learn it on a guitar.
I felt like that was what I wanted to do with the cover album, was take these songs and flip them around and take them from a totally different perspective. And, that one, I instantly knew that I felt like I could bring my own voice and take on.
And even when it feels like she's going old-school, there's often a twist. "San Francisco Blues" might have the sound and feel of a classic country waltz, but its theme is utterly contemporary, how expensive it's become to live in the Bay Area.
It is crazy. Like, when I go back to Palo Alto, my mom is like, well, like, none of the grocery stores can find people to live or to work there, because no one who works at a grocery store can live anywhere near Palo Alto.
Like, our favorite restaurants and places from when I was a kid are all going out of business, because, if you work at a restaurant, you have to live like hours away from Palo Alto. You can't afford to live anywhere near there. Same with San Francisco.
It is music traditional, yet somehow current. Maybe that's the fruit you should expect from a crooked tree.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tom Casciato.
Molly Tuttle, she's like a breath of fresh air.
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Tom Casciato is an Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and television executive who has created critically acclaimed nonfiction projects that have appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, TBS, Showtime and more. He recently directed and produced two stories within episodes of the second season of the Emmy Award-winning climate-change series, "Years Of Living Dangerously." His 2013 film with Kathleen Hughes and Bill Moyers for Frontline series, "Two American Families," was called by Salon “... one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries” of the year. Tom previously worked at WNET from 2006 until 2012, serving variously as director of News & Current Affairs and executive producer of two PBS series, "Wide Angle" and "Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports."
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