Renowned author, James P. Carse, is known for his book, Finite and Infinite Games, which discusses the difference between “games” like a tennis match and the art of writing poetry. The first, Carse says, is played to have a clear winner. The second is played so that one can merely continue to play it. Those players – i.e. masters – simply go deeper and deeper into the art form, somehow both expanding their knowledge and the surface area of what they have yet to learn. One such guitar master is Nashville’s award-winning bluegrass musician, Molly Tuttle, who will release her latest (covers) album, …but i’d rather be with you, on August 28th.
“When I see the guitar,” Tuttle says, “there are so many endless opportunities and ways to keep learning. It’s like playing a video game that never ends and gets more and more complex. I think it’s a really exciting world of possibility.”
Tuttle won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year in both 2017 and 2018. She was the first woman to win the award, let alone the first to win back-to-back. She was also named the Americana Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2018. In many ways, when Tuttle plays, she’s like a machine, her hands and fingers perfectly calibrated to the strings and fret demarcations. It comes from years obsessing over the instrument, she says, her passion growing by the day.
“About a year-and-a-half after I got my first guitar,” Tuttle says, “I wanted to practice all the time. I wanted to learn new tunes all the time. Part of that was having other people to play with. Another part was falling in love with bluegrass and old time songs.”
Tuttle, who first started on piano but quickly switched to a six-string, played her first string of gigs at 11-years-old. Growing up, instruments were always around the house. Her father was a music teacher. He had his own small studio in a guitar shop in Palo Alto where Tuttle grew up. When she turned her attention to guitar, he began to teach her. While many might shy away from a parent’s interest in their lives, Tuttle embraced it. She said she felt comfortable in the lessons with her father and so the two began the musical journey, both with formal lessons and, at times, jamming around the house.
“It was really fun to learn from him,” she says. “Actual lessons with teachers were scary to me as a kid. I would never practice. But with my dad, it was just a lot more relaxed.”
When listening to Tuttle play, one might assume she only appreciates music played in perfect time or syncopation – music without flaw. But that’s not actually the case. Tuttle says she’s always found herself drawn to the older, rougher and rawer sides of music. Perhaps it’s the old saying: opposites attract. Nevertheless, it’s the more human side of those recordings that engages her creative spirit.
“The tension of the voices singing together, how it’s not always in perfect tunes,” Tuttle says. “I love the rough edges in all the old bluegrass recordings. That’s also what draws me into lots of different styles of music. I’m kind of a perfectionist so I love listening to music that doesn’t always have to be that way.”
Tuttle says she picked the 10 songs on her forthcoming LP because they’re both some of the most meaningful to her and because she wanted to offer her own style to them. She recorded the tracks solo (learning ProTools along the way) in quarantine. Then Tuttle sent them to her producer, Tony Berg, who built the songs out with professional players – some of whom Tuttle has yet to meet in person – who recoded their parts from their homes. The record, which features a guest appearance by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor (a friend of Tuttle’s), begins with a statement track by famed rock band, The National.
“That song is about apathy in our country and people preferring to pretend that everything’s fine,” Tuttle says. “Instead of waking up to the injustices all around us.”
Tuttle, who is often vocal about her support of the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ+ social causes, says, at times, fans have offered criticism to her statements. While she doesn’t waste time debating on the internet, expressing her messages of equality do remain paramount.
“I receive some backlash every time I talk about Black Lives Matter or when I’m doing something related to PRIDE,” Tuttle says. “I’m trying not to stay silent on matters that I feel strongly about.”
But if a health pandemic and social injustice worries weren’t enough, Tuttle’s home was nearly leveled after the recent devastating Nashville tornado, which felled much of the musical city in March. But, Tuttle says, amidst all the sadness and destruction, there was a sliver of a silver lining, which was emblematic of what she loves most about what she does and where she lives. Working with people who want to make a difference, that’s one of the many reasons why Tuttle remains hard at work in music and why her songs will continue on through an already difficult 2020.
“The one thing that was special was how everyone pulled together,” Tuttle says. “Especially in the music community. People were hosting fundraisers, getting in the streets, helping their neighbors. That was really cool to see.”