Roots music. The name suggests an adherence to tradition and a reverence for the elders.
While there is much truth in that characterization, roots genres such as old time, blues, bluegrass and Americana are continually refreshed with exciting and talented young performers. These are musicians who show a mastery of the traditional styles that goes well beyond their years while also probing the opportunities beyond the traditions.
Thinking of musicians I have long admired, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Alison Krauss, and Bryan Sutton all were—at one point—young bluegrass whippersnappers who pushed those boundaries and set new standards of excellence. Heck, Chris Thile—at the ripe old age of 38 who has been playing like, forever, and is the host of public radio’s Live From Here—long ago graduated from the amazing kid mandolinist stage of his life to being just the amazingly talented musician who has unbelievable chops and musical ears.
Thankfully, gifted young roots music performers keep turning up. People like Molly Tuttle, the exceptionally talented 26-year-old guitar flatpicker who has recently released a debut album, When You’re Ready, that shows the breadth of her influences and the depth of her musical and songwriting skills. After being taught by her father—the well-known Bay Area musician and teacher Jack Tuttle—she is already the two-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award, the first woman to win that accolade. I was first introduced to this part of her musical life through her lighting-fast version of Townes Van Zandt’s White Freightliner Blues, as heard here with the incomparable Tommy Emmanuel and recorded live at the Historic Franklin Theatre.*
When You’re Ready explores new musical territory for Tuttle. In a recent Fretboard Journal article, the artist listed her influences and preferences as ranging from the ones you’d expect (Rice, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Clarence White) to a number that would be surprising to traditionalists (The National, Perfume Genius, SZA, and, yes, 2Pac). The album includes a very personal and brave tune, Sleepwalking, in which Tuttle’s Alopecia comes forward in the official music video. Tuttle lost all her hair to this autoimmune disease at age three, and has lived most of her life wearing a wig. The openness of this music and its beautiful maker is arresting.
“If I drove into the sea
Float away with the fear
Be my anchor, please
‘Cause your voice is all I need
Now we’re sleepwalking
Though a world that disappeared
Burn like TV static
But you’re comin’ in clear”
Molly Tuttle is playing a series of dates with Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show in Tennessee and Virginia in December, before touring the west and south this winter, arriving at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City for an April performance.
More to come…
*As I’ve written several times, my father use to sell tickets and work as the back-up projectionist at the Franklin Theatre. It has a special place in our family’s history.