Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – Crooked Tree
I feel I should come clean. A lot of bluegrass is like lager to me. Always acceptable but seldom particularly memorable or varied. There, I’ve said it. However of late Billy Strings has caused a stir with his talent and less conventional background. This has enabled his music to be heard wider than the usual aficionados of roots music. Tuttle may have the difference to also make that major break out to a wider audience. She’s no newcomer; this is her third album. However rather than just showcasing her award winning musicianship on stringed acoustic instruments it’s her ear for a tune, thought provoking words and delightful vocals that captures you.
The title track was taken from a Tom Waits quote. He concludes that crooked trees survive and the other straight trees that get chopped down. That is, don’t follow the crowd. Tuttle’s also taken the road less well travelled and unique to herself. “Flatland Girl” has a vocal shared with Margot Price. Price has written about farming in the Mid West and they return to the subject with a lively tune and exquisite harmonies. “Dooley’s Farm” with Billy Strings has a little bit of outlaw sentiment, the farm’s a front for shifting cannabis. Returning to more predictable bluegrass topics Tuttle sings on “The River Knows” about murdering her one time errant lover. Her plaintive voice over a sparse acoustic guitar before strings arrive is spine tingling. It sounds like a very English folk song.
Old Crow Medicine Show join her on “Big Backyard” for a rollicking romp with a terrific chorus and harmonies. “Grass Valley” recalls her own introduction to bluegrass with her father at a festival, a sentimental gem. It’s inescapable that bluegrass isn’t a commercially successful genre for solo women artists. However, with her tongue firmly in her cheek she conjurs up some western swing and sings with Gillian Welch on “Side Saddle” that she wants to join the boys and be taken seriously. I think, for her, that battle has been won.
If you’ve been hesitant and assumed bluegrass was badly dressed bearded men playing acoustic string instruments (expertly) and usually singing about some ancient gruesome event involving a deep well, hard steel and an unrequited lover then take another look/listen. This mainly uplifting and joyous outing will be on a number of end of year lists and maybe mine.