Crooked Tree is a sensational work of bluegrass that both honors the genre’s tradition and forges a proudly modernized take.
There’s a stark, potent metaphor at the center of the new Molly Tuttle album: Somewhere in the darkness of a forest, all the hale and hearty trees are uprooted and fed into a mill, their pulp transmuted into toothpicks and paper currency. Meanwhile, the trees that grow with a gnarl or a bent are spared, unable to fit into the mill’s narrow parameters. They remain where they are, growing strong in their imperfection. In interviews, Tuttle has linked the metaphor to her own struggle with alopecia, a perceived flaw that has allowed her to cultivate resilience. It’s also a big songwriting flex: One of those images that’s so simple and effective, you wonder how nobody thought of it until now.
Such evocative storytelling is typical of Crooked Tree, a sensational album that Tuttle cut with her Golden Highway band, plus an all-star list of featured players that includes Gillian Welch, Margo Price, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Sierra Hull. Though long celebrated as one of Americana’s most dexterous instrumentalists, this is guitarist Tuttle’s first record that explicitly engages with the bluegrass idiom. It’s hard to imagine an album more balanced in the way it honors bluegrass’ hallowed virtues, including technical virtuosity and a connection to tradition, while also making those virtues feel alive and contemporary thanks to personal revelation and a modern sensibility.
Certainly, Tuttle’s bluegrass bona fides can go uncontested. Fleshed out with ace session players, Crooked Tree is a bravura demonstration of skill, but also a keen overview of Tuttle’s genre knowledge. Her take on bluegrass is encyclopedic, spanning not just fleet-fingered pyrotechnics (check the breakneck opener, “She’ll Change”) but amiable rambles (the yodel-filled “Nashville Mess Around”) and soft-shoe balladry (the doleful “San Francisco Blues”). Her music can just as easily strike an ominous note (the minor-key rage in “Castilleja”) as it can adopt a big, goofy grin (the juddering, ramshackle “Big Backyard,” with breathless jaw harp and harmonica from the Old Crow gang). Though Tuttle and her band honor familiar forms, they avoid affectation: Rather than sounding self-consciously old-timey, these songs crackle with joy and camaraderie.
Indeed, Tuttle’s smartest move here is avoiding brazen experimentation in favor of more subtle modernization efforts. A lot of it just comes down to point of view, and not just in the powerful metaphor at the heart of “Crooked Tree.” “San Francisco Blues” is a hard-times tune that could almost pass for a Depression-era chestnut, save for lyrics referencing Dubyah-era financial collapse — a subtle way of adapting working-class blues for the millennial generation, tying contemporary economic plight to an age-old storyline. There is also an unmistakable feminist undercurrent to Crooked Tree, introduced by the flinty, unpredictable character at the heart of “She’ll Change” but perfected in the irresistible “Side Saddle,” a glorious piece of empowered whimsy featuring Welch on the chorus. “I just wanna ride bowlegged like the boys,” they sing, but by that point on the album, Tuttle has already proven the point: With Crooked Tree, she’s produced a stellar album that can proudly stand alongside the inventions of her bluegrass forefathers.
Published as part of Album Roundup — April 2022 | Part 1.