Roots artist Molly Tuttle doesn’t waste time. She and her band Golden Highway released the Grammy-winning Crooked Tree a year ago and toured relentlessly. That album blazed with bluegrass, deep in the genre, even as Tuttle refused to be limited by it. Her writing speed must match her picking because she already has a new album, City of Gold. Tuttle keeps the energy as high as always (relevant pun yet to come). Crooked Tree might have felt like a peak, but with City of Gold, Tuttle continues her ascent.
“El Dorado” provides the setting. The track – and the record in general – was inspired by a childhood field trip Tuttle took to Coloma, California, to learn about the Gold Rush. The album developed out of the music and stories from Tuttle’s life in northern California. “El Dorado” gives it all a mythic slant; characters like “Redwood Bill” and “Snake Oil Jake” populate the territory. Tuttle sings, “Gold Rush Kate…the last one left” after the rise and fall inherent to a mad chase for riches.
With smart sequencing, the next song’s titular question applies to the end of the prospecting and the end of any scene or just youthful indulgence. In “Where Did All the Wild Things Go?”, Tuttle’s words spill out in almost Dr. Seuss mode to parties past, a mix of assonance, internal rhyme, and the like driving the tempo. She sings, “Do you like jammin’ ramblin’ gamblin’ / Slammin’ ’em back ’til you don’t know / What you’re standing on / Passed out in a port-a-john” with a knowing glee. The thoughts of altered states take a political turn with “Down Home Dispensary”. Golden Highway roll as long as Tuttle makes a comical (but sincere) argument for legalized marijuana. The cut feels like a recreation of a past that never quite was; old-time music and vibrant wit turned into a traveling folk protest.
As much fun as Tuttle has on all these numbers, City of Gold doesn’t just blast away. “Yosemite” slows down the pace and brings in Dave Matthews for a duet about a fading relationship being driven on one last road trip. The characters struggle with lines like, “You say, ‘How pretty’; I’m thinking how strange / It feels to follow this sinking ship down.” Tuttle’s delivery changes as the emotions become more desperate and then more resigned (without hurting less). “When My Race Is Run” grapples with mortality. With her voice at the front of a spare recording, Tuttle considers not her own loss but whether or not her beloved will be waiting for her on the other side. These tracks highlight Tuttle’s nuanced vocal skill and her great sense of melody.
While City of Gold remains Tuttle’s show, plenty of credit should go to Ketch Secor, the album’s co-writer, producer, dobro player Jerry Douglas, and the exceptional Golden Highway. The band knows when to tear through a track and when to hold back, each artist as proficient as they are expressive. Within this strong community, Tuttle can make the final realization of the album, as “The First Time I Fell in Love” looks at the power of a love that “comes from within “, enabling you to love yourself. It’s a confident personal expression to close a record full of travel and grand events and unleashed energy. It’s the perfect finish, a close-up after a run of characters and frequent rowdiness that calmly settles one of the year’s best albums.