Molly Tuttle does it again with a very high-quality modern bluegrass album.
OK, so how do you follow an award-winning album that set new standards in bluegrass playing and writing? If you are Molly Tuttle, you get together the touring band that have been trawling ‘Crooked Tree‘ around hundreds of gigs over the last couple of years (and indeed trailing the songs from this new album) and effectively reproduce the storming tightknit bluegrass that they have played live, and capture the magic in the recording studio on a new album called ‘City of Gold’. You use just these four cohorts, each of them virtuosos on their respective instruments and only embellish the sound with some co-producer Jerry Douglas dobro on a few tracks – most notably on the eerie ‘Stranger Things’.
Molly Tuttle is an acoustic guitar player par excellence (two-time guitar player of the year) – listen to any of the breaks on ‘City of Gold’ and see if you can think of a better one – and her stunning band Golden Highway comprises Bronwen Keith-Hynes on fiddle, Shelby Means on bass, Dominick Leslie on mandolin and Kyle Tuttle (no relation) on banjo. Tuttle has long been recognised as one of the best flat-picking guitarists around but what has changed over the years is her vocal confidence and her songwriting. And so you write a whole album of great new songs. And, thankfully, you engage your band on a collective basis, with every player able to demonstrate their skill without flash or showboating.
‘City of Gold’ is probably an album less focused on Tuttle’s own personal story, with a wider spread of subject matter, but as well as covering the subjects that appeared on ‘Crooked Tree’ , this album also touches on more romantic aspects of her life. And this is perhaps not a surprise as her co-writer on every song is Ketch Secor, from Old Crow Medicine Show, who is also her real-life partner. There are two beautiful love songs which she has not really attempted before, the lilting and passionate ‘ More like a River’ – “The months, the miles the mountains between Our love springs up just like a bubbling stream, So step on in feel your whole body shiver, We got a love more like a river” and ‘The First Time I fell in love”, a diaphanous waltz about learning to love oneself, which perfectly ends the album. Uncannily both of these songs have an unplaceable familiarity to them, which makes them all the more charming.
There are tales of the California gold rush (‘El Dorado’ – the original City of Gold), America’s abortion issue (the marvellous ‘Goodbye Mary’), the legalization of pot issue (the full tilt ‘Down Home Dispensary’) – “hello legislator the voters have spoken, There’s too much politickin’ and not enough tokin”, a typical bluegrass train song, (the rollicking ‘San Joaquin’) and a plea against gentrification of old town hangouts (the heavier, rockier ‘Where did all the wild things go’). There’s more, and plenty to get your teeth (or ears) into on this marvellous album – the interplay between the band members is more detailed than before and some of the arrangements are more intricate than a normal bluegrass album. Tuttle’s voice is now a wonder to hear – listen to ‘When my race is run’, a laconic introspection about what happens when the ‘journey’ is over, where she sounds not unlike Alison Krauss, one of her early heroes.
Molly Tuttle’s journey towards superstar status has been meteoric. This is only her fourth album but just look at the album covers evidencing the change in confidence – previously she has seemed like a rather delicate young lady, ”Crooked Tree’ profiled the tree itself with Tuttle in the background, but on ‘City of Gold’ she is front and centre with her guitar wearing a nudie suit. She’s already proved she can do ‘other things’ – a soft country album and an album of predominantly rock covers. She now appears to comfortably enjoy stretching things within a bluegrass structure.
Explore this album many times over. Each superb song rewards repeated listens, when the sheer brilliance of the band and the scintillating arrangements will start to haunt you, and you will realise you are listening to one of the albums of the year.