Molly Tuttle‘s latest album, Crooked Tree, is a wide-ranging collection of high-quality bluegrass and folk songs. Tuttle’s previous two records were credited to her as a solo artist, but Crooked Tree features a full string band officially performed by Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway. Veteran dobro player Jerry Douglas produced the record, and his playing can also be heard here and there throughout. Douglas makes sure every instrument comes through crisp and clearly, so every musician gets a chance to shine. Tuttle also brings in a smattering of guest artists to join her on individual tracks, and the names she attracts are not at all surprising to fans of the folk and bluegrass genres. Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch, and Margo Price all make appearances.
Before the guest stars show up, the album begins with just Tuttle and Golden Highway and the track “She’ll Change”. It opens with Tuttle and banjo player Kyle Tuttle picking at full speed while mandolinist Dominick Leslie and bassist Shelby Means hold down the rhythm. Fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes flits in and around the central theme, providing accompaniment and flourishes. Tuttle sings admiringly about a woman who takes life as it comes and never stays in one place for long.
Roughly half of Crooked Tree features Tuttle and Golden Highway playing on their own. The title track is a mid-tempo song that tells the story of a forest getting cut down, with the timber headed for the mill. The chorus comes quickly, just 40 seconds into the song, and gets right to the point. “Oh, can’t you see / A crooked tree / Won’t fit into the mill machine / They’re left to grow / Wild and free / I’d rather be a crooked tree.” The metaphor is obvious, but Tuttle keeps the focus on the forest for the first two verses. It’s only on the extended third verse that she explicitly talks about herself as a crooked tree, and by that time, the song has its hooks in the listener.
“Castilleja” treads the line between minor-key bluegrass and cowboy folk. Tuttle sings from the perspective of a person expressing love for the aloof woman Castilleja. There’s intrigue, tragedy, and vengeance, all in just over three minutes of song. Similarly, “The River Knows” tells a story of infatuation gone wrong. The instrumentation on this track is sparse and haunting, while Tuttle sings about a childhood friendship that soured. “I thought he was a friend indeed / But a woman can’t trust a man in need,” goes the chorus. The narrator details how she rejected this former friend’s love and unsuccessfully attempted to stay away from him but ended up battered and apparently raped.
The guest stars make their presence felt, by instrumentation, vocals, or both. “Big Backyard” is a rollicking slice of country-folk of the type Old Crow Medicine Show have been playing for decades. Ketch Secor’s distinct fiddle style is easily identifiable, as are his low harmonies accompanying Tuttle. Harmonica, drums, and thick group harmonies all show up as the song goes along. The sentiment of the track that everyone shares the same “big backyard” (the Earth itself) is pure 1970s eco-cheese, but the presence of Old Crow Medicine Show and their “everyone is invited to our party” attitude makes it work.
Margo Price shows up for “Flatland Girl” as Tuttle reminisces about her grandfather’s farm in Illinois and the crumbling of the small-time farms that once dotted the landscape of the state. Price, an Illinois native, provides close, warm harmonies in the song. Gillian Welch is onboard for the cornpone “Side Saddle”, a mid-20th-century style cowboy song. It’s a wide-eyed story of a young cowgirl showing up the boys at the rodeo and proving she has the skills to beat them at their own game. The duet harmonies are sweet and inviting and the song is silly but fun.
Guitarist Billy Strings guests on “Dooley’s Farm”, a fierce minor-key track about a mild-mannered farmer who sells amazing homegrown marijuana under the table. Tuttle and Strings harmonize exceedingly well and the dark vibe of the song sets it apart on this mostly upbeat album. The story ends with Dooley being sent to state prison for his crime. Tuttle’s character reveals that she’s Dooley’s granddaughter and has continued the business in his absence. Dan Tyminski and his rich baritone voice is on hand for the emotional “San Francisco Blues”, a waltzing ballad that essentially laments how the entire Bay Area has priced out even its longtime residents.
Crooked Tree, however, reserves its most emotional song for last. Tuttle recounts the autobiographical story of her first trip to Grass Valley, California, for its annual bluegrass festival. Over a bed of shimmering strings and slow guitar chords, she talks about the four-hour drive with her dad and being “ten years old and happy / Out of school a week early.” The music picks up into a gently loping bluegrass song as she arrives at the festival, happily bopping along. She describes “Jamgrass for the hippies / Old stuff from the ’50s / And just about nothing in between.” She closes the narrative as an adult musician returning to the festival, noticing “A shy kid with a mandolin / I can see her on the sidelines staring at me / She looks just like I did / The first time I came to Grass Valley.”
While there are plenty of other excellent stories and fabulous playing on the album, nothing hits with the force of this track. Tuttle describing what she retroactively identified as her “bluegrass baptism” is affecting and powerful. The song carries a warmth that anyone who experienced a musical awakening in their formative years will recognize.
Tuttle isn’t radically reinventing the bluegrass genre on Crooked Tree, but her willingness to explore different sides of the genre and stretch into folk and cowboy styles serves her well. There’s a lot of musical variety on the album and it’s well sequenced. The fast-paced tracks outnumber the slower stuff, but everything is interspersed in a way that makes the record a breezy listen. There is a lot to like here for bluegrass fans, and the presence of the multitude of guest stars should be an effective way for Tuttle to broaden her audience.