Singer-songwriter Molly Tuttle is a talented wordsmith and vocalist, but what really sets her apart from her contemporaries is her playing. She is a mind-blowingly good roots music picker—a bona fide guitar shredder.
On her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues,” for instance, Tuttle wastes no time showing what she can do as she pairs the slow and lonesome vocals with tight guitarwork. At the first break, however, she takes things to the next level, playing so fast and precise, and with such emotional depth, that one is left shaking their head in disbelief. And there are plenty more songs where that one came from.
Growing up, Tuttle had an unfair advantage over her peers. Her dad is Jack Tuttle, a well-known artist and music teacher in Palo Alto. By the age of 8, she had a guitar in her hands, and by 10 she was performing bluegrass songs around town and opening for other artists. By the time she was 15, she had the musical foundation to teach herself whatever styles and techniques she wanted to learn.
“I played a little bit of piano … and tried violin when I was really little,” she says, “but neither of those really stuck. When I finally started on guitar, that’s what I really liked to practice. That’s when I kind of took off.”
One of Tuttle’s early idols was bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens, a woman who led her own bluegrass band and possessed an authenticity that ran through all her songs. In a nice twist of fate, Tuttle attended the Berklee College of Music on a Hazel Dickens Memorial Scholarship.
“I’ve always loved her music, so it was an honor to get that scholarship,” says Tuttle. “She was the first bluegrass singer whose voice really spoke to me. I could tell it was a really honest voice and a unique voice and that inspired me to try to find my own unique voice—to be really true to the songs I’m singing.”
While playing music comes naturally to Tuttle, she doesn’t consider herself a natural performer. She says she’s had to work on things like audience banter and stage presence. During our conversation, she’s warm but reserved, opening up just enough to respond to questions, but not offering up any more than is necessary.
But who needs words when you can play like Tuttle? When she cuts loose on guitar, you can bet that everyone in the room sits up and takes notice. Like a master of any craft, she makes it look easy.
The trick to developing her picking skills, she says, is to play songs differently each time—to try new guitar runs, timing and changes. Tuttle’s willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of roots music has placed her comfortably in the progressive bluegrass genre, where artists like the Punch Brothers and Trampled by Turtles draw from the rich traditions of pioneers, including David Grisman and John Hartford, and continue to move the genre into new territory by incorporating jazz, rock, experimental music, punk and more.
A Bay Area native, Tuttle now lives in Nashville, where she’s surrounded by what she describes as a really nice group of people.
“There are so many musicians and so many places to go out and see really great music,” she says. “I definitely miss California, but I love Nashville. It seems like a good place to be.”
For her upcoming performance at Don Quixote’s, Tuttle is bringing her four-piece band. She plans to play bluegrass standards as well as some original tunes. When asked what advice she would offer newcomers to bluegrass guitar playing, she says to connect with other musicians through jams and roots music festivals, and to learn from the giants of the genre.
“It’s a really community-oriented music,” she says. “Just get out there and play with other people. And, of course, listen to classic bluegrass, like Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and just get educated in it. Those are the most important things when you’re getting started.
Molly Tuttle will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 31 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $10/adv, $12/door. 335-2800.