Molly Tuttle is fast emerging as one of the greatest guitar pickers of her generation – cemented by the huge popularity of her first album of original songs Crooked Tree, released in April. But beneath her rapid transformation as an Americana star lies a fascinating story of a young woman battling a life-changing disease.
For when she was three, Molly was diagnosed with Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune skin disease which causes hair loss on the scalp, face and, in her case, all parts of the body. She performs to sold-out audiences wearing a wig, for she and her parents chose, when she was a child, to stay off treatments to promote temporary hair growth.
She details her personal struggle with Alopecia in a fascinating article on a special page on her music website https://www.mollytuttlemusic.com/alopeciaareata It was first published in the roots music journal No Depression in April 2019 under the headline Spotlight: Molly Tuttle on ‘The Best Gig I’ve Ever Played’
“The best gig I ever played was in the summer of 2017 at the National Alopecia Areata Foundation,” she wrote.
It proved to be her “coming out” about Alopecia to both friends and fans.
“In the years after high school I took baby steps, opening up to friends and significant others, going public without my wig, and slowly building up evidence that the world wouldn’t end if everyone knew I was bald,” she said. “Finally, as the 2017 conference approached, I decided the time had come to reconnect with the alopecia community and also let my fans in on this important part of my life.”
She concluded: “Having alopecia has taught me that there is nothing ‘normal’ about everyone being the same. Humans are beautifully diverse. We all have work to do to make our world a safe and more welcoming place for everyone regardless of appearance, race, age, sexuality, gender identity, disability, or anything else that makes us human.
“Many of us mean well and don’t realize when we’re using hurtful stereotypes and creating stigma. I think that as a society we can start to heal by educating ourselves and listening to each other’s stories. I hope that by sharing mine, I can make the world a better place for the bald kids of the future.”
The 29-year-old gained industry recognition in 2017 when she became the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award. She repeated the distinction the following year.
And her ability as a sensational picker was no better summarized than in the clever opening to Tony Scherman’s profile in the New York Times: “The singer, songwriter and guitarist Molly Tuttle’s fingers move so quickly she could pick your pockets without breaking stride.”
More praise in the same article from acoustic star David Rawlings: “Molly plays with a confidence and command that only the very best guitarists ever achieve. If that could be bottled, I’d take two.” And this from Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor on the PBS Newshour: “If I had to pick a surgeon, I’d say give me a hand like Molly Tuttle.”
Such adulation has been multiplied following the release of Crooked Tree, her fourth album, but the first where all the songs are written, or co-written, by Tuttle. She co-produced it with Dobro guitar maestro Jerry Douglas.
And there is even more star-power associated with the album. Besides her backing band Golden Highway, it features collaborations with Margo Price, Billy Strings, Old Crow Medicine Show, Sierra Hull, Dan Tymanski and Gillian Welch.
None, however, overshadow Tuttle who matches her finger-picking skills with her very distinctive soprano Californian drawl. Also very evident, is her emerging writing talent. Crooked Tree is stacked with inventive story-telling which reflect both her love for bluegrass and, indeed, her love for life.
“I’d always felt a block writing bluegrass songs,” she told Scherman “I just don’t relate to a lot of the old themes. But something clicked where I was able to write songs that felt true to who I am but still fit into bluegrass.”
The fiddle-fused title track, co-written with Melody Walker, certainly does this as she openly addresses Alopecia and the challenge of living a different life:
People say I’m different
My way of life seems strange
I took the road less traveled
Twists and turns along the way
But like the Crooked tree
I’m growing stronger day by day
As the clouds roll by
Tuttle told PBS Newshour what inspired she and Melody to write Crooked Tree: “We had seen a quote by Tom Waits which kinda said like when they chop down the trees in a forest, the crooked trees are the ones left standing.”
Tuttle gets inventive on the sing-along “Dooley’s Farm” based on an old bluegrass favourite “Dooley” about a moonshiner with a 40 gallon still.
“In “Dooley’s Farm” I decided to recast Dooley as a modern-day outlaw, writing from the perspective of his granddaughter,” she said. “I wrote this song with Ketch Secor and brought Billy Strings in to lend his amazing voice and playing. I had fun updating this classic bluegrass character while taking some inspiration from my real grandfather who was a farmer (but not that kind of farmer).”
Tuttle herself is very much a city girl. She was born in Santa Clara and raised Palo Alto, California, where her dad Jack Tuttle taught guitar at a local music shop. And perhaps the most appealing song on her new album, “San Francisco Blues” featuring Dan Tymanski, sees her reflect on the San Francisco Bay Area. Co-written with Walker and Secor, she makes a biting reference on how times have changed for the worse.
Before the fires before the quake
Before the crash of ’08 there was magic
You could feel it in your heart
But raise the rent and scrub the street
It gets so hard to make ends meet
Now I can’t even pay to ride the cable cars
She gets even more nostalgic on the album closer “Grass Valley” which tells of her travelling with her dad to a Bluegrass festival in California. Tuttle shares: "Mr father took me to the Father's Day Bluegrass Festival in Crass Valley, CA, when I was 10 years old and it changed my life. It was my first time going to a music festival and the songs I heard on stage and jammed in the campground stuck with me for years to come. When I was writing the songs for Crooked Tree I kept going back to those earliest musical memories. I decided to close my album with a song about Grass Valley to give context to the music that I make now."
Jack Tuttle sings harmony on “Grass Valley” in which she nicely refers to her baptism in the genre as “jamgrass.”
Deadheads in tie-dye array
Dawg music devotees
Like nothing I’d ever heard or seen
It was jamgrass for the hippies
Old stuff from the fifties
Just about nothing inbetween
It was at one such music festival that Tuttle, a proud feminist, recalled the sexism she has experienced throughout her music career.
She detailed on PBS what was the norm at a bluegrass festival when the various artists jammed together and passed the solos from one player to the next: “I knew most of the people in the jam, but there’s one guy that I’d never met before. And it was go around, so when he gets to me he leans over me and points to the banjo player on the left and says ‘you take the solo.’ When you’re a woman in music a lot of times you’re second guessing yourself: Are they treating me like this because I’m a woman?”
She gets her own back on the opening track “She’ll Change,” another Secor co-write and the album’s first single:
She don’t worry about tomorrow
She’s got plenty on her mind
Don’t have to beg, steal or borrow
Just snaps her little fingers and they all stand in line
These days Tuttle can indeed snap her little fingers and get everyone to pay attention to her wonderful talent – with or without a wig!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation