More than 55 years after Grace Slick helped create psychedelic rock with the Jefferson Airplane hit “White Rabbit,” the same song is being used to give new meaning to the ever-evolving musical genre of progressive bluegrass or newgrass as it is commonly known.
For young bluegrass phenomenon Molly Tuttle and her band Golden Highway have just released a version of “White Rabbit” which not only unplugs the 1960’s pop classic but serves to demonstrate the wonderful ingenuity of musicians at their creative best.
Tuttle and Golden Highway are currently the hottest act in modern bluegrass. They won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album this year with their 2022 release Crooked Tree. At the same time, Tuttle became the first bluegrass artist to be nominated for the prestigious all-genre Best New Artist Award at the Grammys.
Like Grace Slick, Tuttle had her upbringing in Northern California.
Slick wrote “White Rabbit” and performed it with her first band The Great Society. But when she left them to take over as lead singer with Jefferson Airplane, she took the song with her. It would be included on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 release Surrealistic Pillow, and, as a single, it would become a top ten hit. It is included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
“White Rabbit” draws on imagery from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel six years later, Through the Looking-Glass. Slick reportedly wrote the song after an acid trip and later said it was supposed to be a dig at parents who read their children such books and then wonder why their children later took drugs. Characters referenced by Slick include the White Rabbit, Alice, the White Knight, the Red Queen, the Dormouse and the hookah-smoking caterpillar.
Slick explained: "The line in the song 'feed your head' is both about reading and psychedelics...feeding your head by paying attention: read some books, pay attention.”
Like Slick, Tuttle also had a fascination with Carroll’s works. "I have loved the story of Alice in Wonderland since I read the book as a kid and played the Queen of Hearts in my school play," she said.
But her decision to record the song as a single seems to have little to do with any association it might have with drugs, but more the fact that she and Slick are from California.
"Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane is from Palo Alto, CA, just like me, and this song gives me the nostalgic feeling of growing up,” said Tuttle in Nonesuch Records’ release to coincide with the single being made available to stream. It was first released as an Amazon Original in September.
“Recording it also pushed my band forward into new territory musically,” Tuttle added. “This is the first song I have arranged, produced and recorded from the ground up with the band members that I've been on the road with all year. Each band member brought ideas to the table, making this a truly collaborative effort."
And a collaborative effort it certainly is. Tuttle, currently regarded as one of the best bluegrass instrumentalist, is on guitar and is joined by Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle, Shelby Means on bass, Dominick Leslie on mandolin and Kyle Tuttle on banjo.
If ever there was an outfit best suited to put the “new” into bluegrass it is Golden Highway who are a far cry from the aging all-male lineups from Dixieland who created and once dominated bluegrass music. One wonders if it ever occurred to the likes of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley or Earl Scruggs to pluck a song created from an acid trip?
Just how far removed Golden Highway are from the more traditional bluegrass acts is captured nicely by a live-performance video of the song, filmed – seemingly hand-held – by Jay Strausser at Suwannee Hulaween in Live Oak, Florida.
The band are in full costume and Strausser wonderfully captures each artist as they make their respective musical contributions. It begins with the soft bass picking from Means before panning across to Molly – the Queen of Hearts - for some delicate guitar picking before she delivers the intriguing opening stanza:
One pill makes you larger And one pill makes you small And the ones that mother gives you Don't do anything at all The first musical bridge sees Leslie on mandolin and Keith-Hynes on fiddle turn the rock classic on its head with majestic acoustic solos. And after Molly then concludes the second verse with the high notes of feed your head/feed your head, there is an all-in musical brawl for the final minute, ignited by some high-speed banjo plucking from Kyle Tuttle. At just over five minutes, it is double the length of the original.
The distinction between Slick’s percussion-driven, reverb contralto vocals and Tuttle’s acoustic-entwined delivery only adds value to this intriguing cover. It should encourage more bluegrass/newgrass bands to be so inventive.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Musical Appreciation