Q&A: Molly Tuttle Talks Bluegrass, Imposter Syndrome and Being Nashville Roommates with Billy Strings

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Videos by American Songwriter

Nashville-based guitarist Molly Tuttle is known as one of the best six-string players on planet earth. If individual fingers were athletes, she’d have 10 Olympians. Yet, as you can see below, Tuttle has also suffered from the concept of “Imposter Syndrome,” or the idea that one doesn’t belong.

Here, in this conversation, we talk with the California-born musician about just that. We also talked with her about her forthcoming new bluegrass record Crooked Tree, out April 1, which she recorded with her new band Golden Highway.

Tuttle talked about her stint living with another great guitar player, Billy Strings when the two were just making their way in the Music City. Tuttle and Strings are longtime friends and collaborators and he, along with others like Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, is featured on Tuttle’s new LP.

American Songwriter: When did you first discover the guitar?

Molly Tuttle: I discovered the guitar when I was really little because my dad plays guitar and some of my earliest memories are sitting on the couch and hearing my dad play songs out of his folk songbook. And so I always just loved music when I was a kid. I dabbled in a couple of other instruments, but when I decided that I wanted to try and play the guitar was when I was eight years old.

My dad one day brought me home a little, small guitar called a baby Taylor guitar. So that was my first guitar. He was showing me chords and after a couple of years, I just became obsessed.

AS: What did that obsession look like?

MT: I was learning fiddle tunes on the guitar. It was mainly, like, I’d play with my dad. He would show me a tune and I’d go on my own and play it over and over again. I remember in third grade, I went into my class and played this song called “Eight More Miles To Louisville” and I remember being so proud of learning that one because it has fast chord changes.

So, just learning songs mainly from my dad. And I heard a lot of music around the house. We always had CDs playing. So, I heard a lot of bluegrass and folk music and old-time music and so then when I got a little bit older, I started playing with other kids. I had a friend who played banjo and her brother played guitar and we would play together a lot.

That’s when I started pushing myself more and more because they were a little more advanced than me. And I wanted to be able to improvise and learn new songs on the spot like they could. So, it was helpful for me to have other kids to play with.

AS: You were born in California and you went to school in Boston at the Berklee College of Music and now you live and work in Nashville. How did those three locales shape your musicianship?

MT: I think they all influenced me in different ways and influenced my songwriting. I think growing up in California, there was such a strong music scene out there. A lot of people don’t associate roots music with California as well but we’d see David Griffin playing, he was in the Bay Area. And Tony Rice even made a lot of his albums out in California and lived in California for a long time.

Of course, Jerry Garcia grew up in the same town that I grew up in, Paolo Alto. And he brought a lot of people into bluegrass and into these folk songs through the Grateful Dead and his albums like with Old & In the Way and stuff he did with David Grisman. So, there are roots to this music out there and that influenced me a lot as a kid.

Then, moving out to Boston, that felt like where I became more independent. I started playing with my own band. And doing my own shows a little more. I started taking my songwriting more seriously. But I only lived there for about two-and-a-half years. And I’ve lived in Nashville since then.

Since moving to Nashville, I feel like I’ve really met so many people who I feel in common with, musically. There’s such an amazing roots scene out there. But I still definitely feel a call to California. That’s where all my family is. And some songs on the new album were inspired by where I grew up.

AS: You’ve won a number of awards already for your guitar playing and your musicianship. Do these act as checkpoints for you? Are they something you look at every morning? Or do you sort of keep them in the rearview mirror?

MT: Yeah, I think it’s kind of like a struggle for me and I think especially for—like, I talk to other female musicians about this, like, feeling the imposter syndrome. I think in a way it is cool to win those awards because it’s affirming. I always felt so—especially when I was younger, I felt so, like, not very confident in myself, musically. And I think a lot of times I have felt the imposter syndrome thing.

So, it’s a balance between you don’t want to put so much weight into these awards—I don’t know, it’s really supposed to be just about the music. But at the same time, it did help me feel more confident in myself to feel that support from my community. [Laughs] And I remember last month—I don’t put awards or things that remind me of my accomplishments all over my house. But my mom was staying with me and she dug them all out from my closet and was putting them around, like, “You need to look at these every day. So you feel confident in yourself.” It was funny. But I think it’s kind of a balance, I guess.

AS: What about the genre of bluegrass hooked you and how do you work to stay in its rushing river of sound, so to speak?

MT: For me, as a kid, I remember it being kind of like an acquired taste. I didn’t instantly love it. But I heard it so much growing up that I just became so familiar with the songs. And once I started jamming with other people on the songs, I really would love to listen to the stories that people were telling. And people like Hazel Dickens or Ralph Stanley, their voices just really felt so authentic to me.

I think the music is interesting in a way because most people who love bluegrass music also play bluegrass music. So, I think there’s something about how accessible it is and how you can be a beginner but you can also really take it to a high technical level. It just appeals to a lot of people.

AS: You’re one of the best guitar players in the world—do you have to protect your hands and fingers? Do you think about that, especially when it comes to the dexterity often required of playing bluegrass?

MT: I think I was lucky in that I started so young that I got that dexterity quickly as a kid. And I think it comes a lot faster to kids, in a way. So, once I was an adult, I felt like I already had the dexterity. Then it was just like learning the fingerboard and becoming better at improvising and coming up with cooler ideas.

But yeah I still feel like I focus so much on my songwriting and the songs that I play in my set that sometimes I do feel a little intimidated now when I go to a bluegrass jam and everyone’s shredding. Like, oh man, I don’t feel like I play as fast as I used to. Or I need to study up. Or whatever. But yeah it’s interesting, like, performing it you do kind of get into a groove playing the songs you play and you have to remember it’s still about that virtuosity.

AS: What would you like to say about your Golden Highway Collective, the band you play with? And the genesis of your new LP, Crooked Tree?

MT: I started writing this record last year. I’ve always had this idea that I wanted to write an original bluegrass album. But it seemed intimidating to me, especially when I was first starting to write songs. Like, I would try to write from my own experience. But I did grow up in a suburb outside San Francisco and I just felt like I couldn’t write from the bluegrass perspective.

But when I started writing this record, I just felt more confident with it. I feel like maybe having more life experience and then reflecting on the fact that my dad grew up on a farm in Illinois and my grandfather played banjo and that’s part of my story, as well. That’s where the bluegrass music comes from in my family. Reflecting on my experience with that and also reflecting on my experience in Nashville, living in the south. That all went into this next album.

So, once I started writing bluegrass songs they really flowed naturally and it just seemed like the natural next step to record an album. And I did decide to give [the band] the name Golden Highway because I was thinking about the road leading from where I grew up in the Bay Area to the Grass Valley Bluegrass Festival, which I have a song on the album that’s about. That was the first bluegrass festival I went to.

On Highway 49, you’re winding through these golden hills and sometimes they call it the Gold Rush Highway. But I was just thinking about that road leading to the Bluegrass Festival and I thought that it would be fun to have a band name for this project to differentiate it from the solo stuff I’ve done in the past, which is not as much full bluegrass.

AS: What would you like to say about a couple of songs on the record? My favorites are “Dooley’s Farm” and “Big Backyard,” to name two.

MT: Those are two of my favorites, too. I like playing “Dooley’s Farm.” It just felt fun to write a story song and update the old song “Dooley” that I grew up listening to by The Dillards. And that’s about a moonshiner. So, I was like, “What’s the modern-day equivalent of a moonshiner in the south?” And pot is still not legal—in Tennessee, at least! So, I thought let’s update “Dooley” and write a modern-day “Dooley.”

The original song talked about his daughters helping him with the [whiskey] still. So, I did draw a little bit of inspiration from my grandfather. I’d just visited my grandma and she’d given me a bunch of his old hats that he used to wear that had these seed company brands on them. There was one like the Pioneer Seed cap. So, we put in little bits from my actual grandpa in that song.

AS: There are collaborations on the record with big names like Billy Strings and Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show. And you’re close friends with both of those guys. Can you talk about the relationships you have with those musicians and how they might impact your art?

MT: I think both Ketch and Billy really inspire my music. Billy and I were roommates when I first moved to Nashville, and I’d seen how hard he worked. I remember when we were living together, he was just doing as many shows as humanly possible and putting together his band still. He didn’t have the final lineup and was just dealing with the stuff that we all deal with when we’re first starting out.

It was just cool and inspiring. And I’ve sang on his records before and he sings on mine, he sang on my last one, as well. So, that was really fun. And Ketch and I met when I was opening up for them a lot and we started writing together. I just felt when we started collaborating it really clicked musically. I’ve been a fan of his songs for a long time. And he’s really such an amazing songwriter that it was fun writing with him for this record.

AS: That’s amazing that you and Billy were roommates. Can you talk about how that came about?

MT: We’d met briefly at this conference called the Folk Alliance Conference. And you just go and showcase. We met there at a late-night jam or something. I had just moved to Nashville but I was living outside of town in Madison, pretty far out. A lot of people I know live in Madison but they’re super close to the city still. But I was living outside of town, I didn’t have many friends, I was feeling isolated.

Then I saw that Billy posted on Facebook, “Looking for a roommate!” And I was like, “Please! Let’s move in! I want to be in more with the scene and live near friends.” So, yeah, I lived with him for a couple of years. It was really fun. We had lots of jam sessions and a lot of other musicians lived on the same street as us.

AS: That’s like a scene from a movie.

MT: It was pretty awesome.

AS: How about the future? There are tour dates, the album release. How are you thinking about what’s ahead, personally or professionally?

MT: I’ve been so excited about putting out this record. And I love the touring band—it’s been so much fun. So, I’ve been thinking about ways we can collaborate even more, maybe more songwriting together as a group and maybe recording another album with them.

And I also have a whole other batch of songs that I wrote during the pandemic that don’t quite fit the bluegrass vein. So, yeah, I feel like I’m kind of split right now. So, I’m really excited about this new bluegrass project and also looking forward to stretching out again and doing something outside the genre, as well.

AS: What do you love most about music?

MT: I think I love just that it brings people together and I get to play music with other people. And also play for people. Yeah, I think that’s the best part about it.

Photo by Samantha Muljat, courtest Sacks & Co.

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