Molly Tuttle was only two years old when Jerry Garcia died in 1995. Though the little girl who grew up in the Bay Area found other role models who motivated her to become the marvelous flatpicking guitarist and singer-songwriter that she is today, the musicianship spirit of Grateful Dead‘s legendary folk hero must have found a way to possess the soul of Americana’s bright and shining hope. Twenty-five years after a legion of Deadheads first mourned Garcia’s passing, Tuttle is honoring his legacy by including the Grateful Dead’s “Standing on the Moon” on an album of eclectic covers entitled …but i’d rather be with you.
Tuttle’s “current favorite” song is the centerpiece of an enchanting mix of 10 genre-bending acts ranging from world-classic rockers (the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”) to California punkers (Rancid’s “Olympia, WA”) to unheralded artists (Karen Dalton’s “Something on Your Mind” and Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost”). The album will be released on Friday (28 August) via Compass Records, preceded by a record release show at 8:00 pm EST, Thursday (27 August) at instrumentheadlive.com.
It was only two years ago when Tuttle first heard “Standing on the Moon”, the song lead guitarist-vocalist Garcia co-wrote with Robert Hunter that landed on 1989’s Built to Last, the Dead’s final studio album. Preparing for a performance at Jubilee: A Celebration of Jerry Garcia that took place at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, on 30 March 2018, she heard the recorded version, and thought, “‘I’ve just been kind of like waiting to hear a song like this,'” Tuttle recalls during a phone interview from East Nashville. “It’s amazing. It really brought me back to where I grew up in the Bay Area, and I just loved the feeling of it and the nostalgic sense I got from it.”
Tuttle, who joined artists like Sam Bush, Billy Strings, Sara Watkins, and the Decemberists’ Chris Funk on stage that night in LA, didn’t learn “Standing on the Moon” for that show, but soon added it to her concert setlist. “I just love the poetry of it,” she adds. “It’s so beautiful.”
With the world in shutdown mode when the global pandemic hit in March, she was inspired enough to teach herself how to use ProTools. And with plans for a record of new originals on hold, the 27-year-old creative thinker began making a covers album remotely during quarantine in East Nashville, where her home escaped a tornado that caused considerable damage elsewhere.
The album is reflective of her wide-ranging musical interests, she says, and “I have certain songs and certain artists that mean a lot to me.” Unfortunately, her cover of Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest” didn’t make the cut, so Tuttle presented it a few months ago on a YouTube video. With her recorded version of “Standing on the Moon” that’s further enhanced by the backing vocals of Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, Tuttle was destined to tighten a loose Dead connection.
Kid’s Play Gets Serious
The daughter of Jack Tuttle, a bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and teacher who moved to the Bay Area from rural Illinois in 1979, Molly says she “was always super into music. … I would always want to hear him play even as a really little kid, and want to try and play myself.”
It took several misguided attempts at learning other instruments before she found her true love — the guitar. First, the fiddle failed at the age of three or four because “I didn’t have the biggest attention span as a little kid. So I would usually try and then give up. I remember I had piano lessons for a while, but I hated practicing, so my lessons were just kind of scary because I had never practiced for them, and the teacher would get mad at me. … So I gave up on that, too.”
At age eight, knowing a girl at her school who played guitar, Molly decided to give it a try. “I thought it seemed like a fun instrument,” so Jack bought her a Baby Taylor guitar (which he later sold after she grew out of it). “And then I think probably my parents were just like, ‘We’re not getting you any more lessons.’ So my dad started teaching me. And that made it more fun. I didn’t have the anxiety of going into piano lessons and be like, ‘I didn’t practice.’ There would just be my dad showing me some chords on the couch, and that, I think, did the trick for me, like making it less scary in a way.”
One of her first guitar heroes was Tony Rice “because he was kind of the go-to for when you play bluegrass,” she contends. “But then as I got a little deeper into it, I started really liking David Grier [a former Psychograss member], who has his own style with a lot of cross-picking. I took a lot from him. And Dave Rawlings, who plays with Gillian Welch, I love her songwriting, and then I started noticing his guitar playing was unique. And I wanted to learn a bunch of licks from him.”
A band borrowing from the film School of Rock to call themselves School of Bluegrass (“which was so dorky,” she points out with a laugh) included some of her father’s students and performed when Tuttle was 11 or 12 at Fandango Pizza, a since-closed establishment down the street from her parents’ home in Palo Alto. “That’s when I started to improvise and work up solos to be able to play live,” Tuttle adds. “And started singing harmony and learning to sing lead.” The development continued as a teenager who was trying her darnedest to emulate Grier and Rawlings. In sixth grade, she became the only girl in a bluegrass band comprised otherwise of eighth-grade boys. “I was really nervous,” Tuttle admits.
She didn’t have to take her situation too seriously after finding out what John Fuller, a bluegrass fan and her music teacher at Peninsula School in Menlo Park, called his group of middle-schoolers who played once a month at the local Farmers Market. “Our band was the Lil’ Billies. And our teacher forced us to have that name because he thought it was cute,” Tuttle says, laughing at the cringeworthy variation of “Hillbillies”.
Photo: Zach Pigg / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media
It was around that time –- as “an angsty seventh grader’s” musical tastes broadened by listening to Berkeley bands such as Rancid and Operation Ivy –- that her mother Maureen added the classic Workingman’s Dead to Molly’s CD/tape collection, serving as a proper introduction to the Grateful Dead.
“I listened to it a lot. I remember I really liked ‘Dire Wolf’. That was like my favorite,” recalls Tuttle, whose mom grew up in Palo Alto (essentially the Dead’s birthplace). Maureen, who shared that common ground with other members of her side of the California family, gets the credit for turning Molly into another convert. Jack Tuttle, who remains on the teaching staff at Palo Alto’s Gryphon Stringed Instruments since his arrival in 1979, has listened primarily to traditional bluegrass, so he’s “not really a Grateful Dead fan”, Molly maintains.
In album notes about the cover songs, Tuttle writes, “Our specific family lore was that Jerry Garcia had gone to my high school (Palo Alto High) and my mom’s older sister, my Aunt Titia, knew them and used to take guitar lessons from Bob Weir in Menlo Park. That’s a roundabout way of explaining that [‘Standing on the Moon’] means so much to me because it brings me back to my roots.”
Though Tuttle also listened to music by Old & in the Way — Garcia’s bluegrass group that included mandolinist David Grisman — and learned how to play “Ripple”, other Dead tunes weren’t part of her life until recently. “And now I’ve gotten more into it, but I’m still not one of those people who can name every live recording,” she confesses with a devilish laugh.
The second half of Tuttle’s favorite line from “Standing on the Moon” –- “A lovely view of heaven, but I’d rather be with you” –- became the title of her new album. “Somewhere in San Francisco / On a back porch in July / Just looking up to heaven / At this crescent in the sky / Standing on the moon / With nothing left to do / A lovely view of heaven / But I’d rather be with you.”
From “Zero” to Guitar Hero
Tuttle’s musical experience and education continued to grow as she added the banjo to her arsenal. Aas a 16-year-old high schooler, she even ventured outside her comfort zone to tap dance to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Zero”, another intriguing selection from …but I’d rather be with you.
“We had to take dance instead of PE and then we had a tap-dancing unit, and that song had just come out, and me and my friends really liked the band [led by the incomparable Karen O], so I was like, ‘We have to do this song,'” Tuttle explains. “It was a strange combination of that song plus tap-dancing.”
Some hungry fans yearning for a tape of that performance better brace for bad news because, according to a gleeful Tuttle, one doesn’t exist. “Well, it’s good for me,” she cracks wise. “I would never want people to see me tap-dancing.” Tuttle’s wondrous take on the song will have to do for now, but here’s wishing for a tap-dancing music video in the future.
Projects with her dad and a family band (including younger brothers Sullivan and Michael) kept Tuttle occupied until she was awarded merit scholarships to Berklee School of Music in Boston. Tuttle earned other honors along the way: Hazel Dickens Memorial Scholarship award from the Foundation for Bluegrass Music in Nashville; best female vocalist and best guitar player by the Northern California Bluegrass Society; and first place in the Merlefest’s Chris Austin Songwriting Competition. While at Berklee, she played in an all-women bluegrass band called the Goodbye Girls.
By 2015, she was ready to pursue a solo career by moving to Nashville, which she considered “the central hub for meeting people”, especially for bluegrass players like herself. With the release of 2017’s Rise, her first EP, with seven original songs she wrote and featured appearances by Darrell Scott and the Milk Carton Kids, Tuttle made her presence felt. That same year, she also made history, becoming the first woman to be named Guitar Player of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards.
“That kind of like lifted me into a new level,” Tuttle offers. “People even outside of bluegrass were, even if they didn’t know what the IBMA awards were, they were like, ‘That’s cool.’ That definitely helped a lot. People kind of started recognizing my playing a lot more, which was very exciting.”
Photo: Zach Pigg / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media
Student Becomes Teacher
Yet, as the industry awards continued to pile up (Americana Music Association’s 2018 Instrumentalist of the Year, for instance), the accomplished musician still had to fight for respect.
“With guitar, the thing I thought about recently is that it’s daunting when you’re a woman or a girl to break into it because it’s such a male-dominated culture around the instrument,” contends Tuttle, who aims to inspire the next generation of young girls to play guitar. “Even going into a guitar shop, you get treated like you don’t know anything. I’ll go into a guitar shop — not in Nashville; all the ones here are super-cool and nice — but if I go into an average guitar shop, they tell me I’m not using the right pick or act like I don’t know anything about guitars.
“That used to happen to me all the time,” she adds, and still occasionally occurs, even though she visits them less frequently now. “And then at Berklee in my classes, it was like I would have teachers telling me I was playing too feminine, and the classes were all male. I was always the only woman in any of my guitar classes. And I think just those things add up.”
Tuttle hopes that by educating others and spreading the word with fellow female musicians such as Sierra Hull, Alison Brown, Becky Buller and Missy Raines, her supergroup co-members in the recent First Ladies of Bluegrass side project, women will start feeling more comfortable about buying and learning how to play the instrument, either online or in person.
“There’s more women guitar teachers now. There’s more women out there playing guitars,” Tuttle asserts. “So I think the whole culture around it is shifting to where you don’t have to jump through as many hoops just to be taken seriously. But I think people are more aware now, too. There have been so many more conversations around the issue, so I think it’s changing.”
No Stones Unturned
Tuttle admits she is still learning, too. While her geographical proximity to the Deadheads was primarily responsible for her introduction to the band, she managed to avoid what rock’s most famous and successful bad boy act from across the pond brought to America, even decades after the 1960s British invasion. “I’ve never have listened to very much Rolling Stones at all. … I don’t know why,” confesses the eclectic record collector, practically laughing at herself for failing to buy a Stones album. “I don’t listen to much classic rock.”
While knowing about several of the Stones’ hits, Tuttle isn’t afraid to admit that she had never heard “She’s a Rainbow” until starting work on this project. It took encouragement from Tony Berg, her Los Angeles-based producer for the album and an ardent Rolling Stones fan, for the bluegrass phenom to consider choosing from the many selections he kept sending her.
“And then I heard this one, and it just really connected,” Tuttle states. “I immediately thought, ‘That would be cool sung from a female perspective. Just kind of like celebrating femininity in a way. … So, yeah, that was one that I heard, and I was like, ‘I think I can bring something new to this song.'”
Her latest music video, released on 21 August, includes appearances by an all-star cast of musicians such as Tom Morello, Lilly Hiatt, Linda Perry, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Nathaniel Rateliff in a show of support for feminism and women’s rights.
Tuttle has yet to see the Stones perform live but hopes to do so while original members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts are still around. She’s not sure what they’ll think of her tender treatment of a trippy tune by a band known for its testosterone-driven songs, but says shyly, “I hope they’d like it. (laughs) I tried to honor their version.”
Even a suggestion to join them on stage for a one-time collaboration didn’t seem like a ridiculous notion. “That would be amazing,” Tuttle exclaims. “Yes, I’ll just start manifesting that if they hear it: ‘Let me sit in with you at your next show.'”
Taking a “Moon” Walk
Perhaps jamming with a couple of former Grateful Dead members is a more conceivable dream within Tuttle’s reach. Regrettably, guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann weren’t on stage for that Garcia tribute in 2018. They were probably unaware of Tuttle’s concert at the Independent in San Francisco on 24 May 2019, to celebrate the release of When You’re Ready, her full-length album debut.
That latter show in the Grateful Dead’s backyard was significant for many reasons, but specifically because it included her first live performance of “Standing on the Moon”. Tuttle saved her dynamic rendition for the encore while sharing the stage with brother Sullivan Tuttle and “lifelong friend” AJ Lee, both of whom contributed to her “feeling all of the hometown love in the room,” she wrote.
Despite their absence, Tuttle still wants to experience a close Dead encounter. She nearly made it happen earlier this year in one of her final festival appearances before the pandemic struck. Playing in the Sand, a weekend event from 16-19 January in Cancun, Mexico, featured Dead & Company (a heavyweight six-man band that includes John Mayer, Weir, Hart and Kreutzmann) playing three nights on the beach along the Caribbean.
Tuttle, on the bill with Lettuce and Foundation of Funk, played on Friday, then plotted her next move while hanging out at the Cancun resort and enjoying Dead & Company for the rest of the weekend. “I was hoping that I could meet them or sneak my way into sitting in with them,” she discloses. “… But I never actually saw them. They had their own little backstage area. So I was always kind of creeping around, looking for them in hopes that I could at least talk to them.”
While waiting to one day make a dream jam with Dead members a reality, Tuttle will forever be linked to Garcia with “Standing on the Moon”, a beautiful tribute to a celebrated performer who brought artistry, humanity, and happiness into a harmonious world. Tuttle played the song and other covers from the album on 22 August during a solo acoustic performance at Nashville’s City Winery that had her glowing and wearing a new pair of white sneakers for the occasion.
“Wow! This is so cool,” she said to an actual in-person audience for the first time in months while others watched via live stream. “It’s so cool to see you all spread out here at the City Winery. I had no idea how it would feel like to play for real people. (laughs) And play a social distance show, which I’ve never done before. It feels pretty awesome.”
There’s no doubt “Standing on the Moon” will remain a setlist standard for a while, including Thursday, when Tuttle plans to perform the record in sequence while adding some of her original tunes. The show will help benefit the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. Tuttle, who lost all her hair at the age of three because of alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition, is giving back to the organization that has helped her and more than six million Americans try to “find a path to self-acceptance and love”, she said in a recent press release.
While covering other notable artists such as FKA Twigs, Cat Stevens, Harry Styles, and the National that night, Garcia’s Dead song will likely be the powerful and emotional zenith that gives her reason to reflect. His legacy certainly left an impression on Tuttle far beyond the one Dead song she’s reviving. “I think it just makes me feel kind of indebted to his music in a way,” Tuttle explains. “… He brought so many people to bluegrass who discovered him and then discovered David Grisman and discovered Old & in the Way, and so many of the bluegrass musicians I grew up with were Deadheads who had discovered bluegrass.
“And so … he left such a huge mark on the music community in the Bay Area and just like the culture as a whole. There are so many echoes of him and of the Grateful Dead music in the area where I grew up. … I think he’s just like a part of my musical identity in a way.”
Good golly, Ms. Molly. With out-of-this-world insights like that, the spirit of the Dead will live on long after their expiration date.
Photo: Zach Pigg / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media