Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – Crooked Tree
Molly Tuttle is a leading figure in contemporary bluegrass, a world which was discussed in Emma John’s wonderful travelogue Wayfaring Stranger. Bob Harris is a fan of Molly’s and has been playing her music for the past few years, probably because it recalls the mighty Alison Krauss.
If you judge a person by the company she keeps, Molly is a superstar. The album is produced by dobro wizard Jerry Douglas and is packed with guests from the bluegrass firmament. If anything, this is a sort of bluegrass version of what DJ Khaled does, except Molly doesn’t yell her name before her guest takes a verse.
Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show joined Molly to write eight of the album’s 13 tracks. His band feature on the delightful Big Backyard, which contrasts the country girls and the city guys out in Hollywood or New York but ‘come rain or shine, it’s the same big sky’. Flatland Girl features Margo Price, who helps Molly sing about how ‘a farmer’s day is never done’. It is gorgeous and, like much of the album, soaked in fiddle.
Speaking of strings(!!), Billy Strings accompanies his bluegrass mate on the bluesy Dooley’s Farm, which has a nice kicker at the end. The mood is evoked by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the slow, woozy musical accompaniment.
The title track is a fable of nature, in which Molly comes down on the side of the crooked tree that can’t easily be turned into ‘toothpicks and 20-dollar bills’ at the mill. As if to exaggerate the crookedness, Molly changes the number of beats in the bars where the titular tree is mentioned. It reminds me a little bit of The Lorax, Dr Seuss’s environmental parable, and I reckon it’ll become a bluegrass standard. She personifies nature in The River Knows, which ‘cries’ when love goes awry, while Grass Valley is a place where Molly was ‘standing round jamming’ with her dad as a kid.
Nashville Mess Around is lightly critical of Music City (‘we’ve had our boom and there’s no room!’) but it’s a heap of fun thanks to the yodelling. Castilleja is a proper bluegrass band song: the instrumentalists take solos and Molly sings of love and stuff in the desert. Technically, melodically and narratively, it is perfect and worthy of the audience that Alison Krauss and, indeed, Sierra Hull and Gillian Welch get.
Those two woman also join in the fun: Sierra’s mandolin helps Molly go Over The Line – the line being the US-Mexico border – while Gillian is sat Side Saddle on the feminist bluegrass song (‘I just wanna ride bow-legged like a boy’). Dan Tyminski, who has worked with Alison Krauss and was the real voice coming out of George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou, adds harmonies to the melancholy waltz San Francisco Blues, which recalls the state of Molly’s birth.
This is a wonderful album, full of nature, empathy and musicianship. Worse still for us old folk, Molly is 29. Go listen while she’s ascending the bluegrass ladder.
Old Crow Medicine Show – Paint This Town
OCMS, meanwhile, are much more than bluegrass now. They are led by Ketch Secor, who added verses to an old chorus by Bob Dylan about rocking him like a wagon wheel and made both of their accountants very happy. They also performed Bob’s first ‘Nashville album’ Blonde on Blonde in its entirety in 2017 and you must listen to the set recorded at the Country Music Hall of Fame to appreciate the musicianship and songwriting of an album that contributed to the birth of rock music (as opposed to rock’n’roll).
OCMS are at this point as beloved as The Mavericks, The Oak Ridge Boys and Zac Brown Band. We expect showmanship, musicianship and all the other ships and the quality control is extraordinary. While hunky guys and pretty girls get played on the radio and shift units to a predetermined audience, OCMS will outlast all of them and attract an audience who care about Music with a capital M. ’23 years…and we’re still strumming…harder!’ was their note to fans upon the release of the album.
Paint This Town is produced by Matt Ross-Spang, who rose to become Chief Engineer at Sun Studio Memphis before setting up his own studio. He’s helped craft the sonics of records by Jason Isbell, Lori McKenna, The Mountain Goats, Margo Price and John Prine, so our ears are in safe hands. I imagine lots of people will listen to the album on hi-fidelity audio and it seems a shame to stream it in low quality via Spotify.
They were meant to play at Country2Country 2020 but the virus scuppered their chances of bringing their good-time music to Greenwich. OCMS have added the guitar-playing wizard Charlie Worsham to their band too, which is a match made in bluegrass heaven. The accelerator is pressed right down to the floor on the tracks Bombs Away (‘I don’t mind if I lose my mind!’), Painkiller (‘mama won’t you ease my mind!’ – make your mind up, Ketch!!) and Used To Be A Mountain, which rotates between soft and hyperactive sections.
Reasons To Run is a gorgeous song where Ketch is ‘running out of reasons’ to escape the ghost towns. Spot the nasal delivery of a line near the end of the song which is pure Dylan, as is the structure and delivery on New Mississippi Flag, which is almost a tribute to the type of song on Blonde on Blonde. Honey Chile is rich in harmonies like the best music by the band who backed Bob on the Blonde on Blonde tour, which became The Band.
There’s an appropriately gospely, New Orleans boogie-woogie feel to Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise, and Ketch becomes a Pentecostal preacher on the unhinged John Brown’s Dream, which will be enormous fun to perform live. As will Hillbilly Boy, a story song about a fiddler with a chorus featuring the line ‘pass that jug of wine and let it shine, shine, shine!’ Songs like these are amazing to hear in an era of processed drums and reconstituted disco beats. Just as The White Stripes rescued the Delta Blues from academic study, so Ketch and his crew are bringing bluegrass to the masses.
The band’s recent setlist includes neither John Brown’s Dream nor Hillbilly Boy, though they do play Gloryland, where Ketch looks upon a ‘ruined nation’ to the accompaniment of a stately arrangement in direct opposition to those feelgood tunes elsewhere on the album. It is even more stark given recent events in the USA.
The most poignant song on the album is DeFord Rides Again, which tells the story of the 4’9” DeFord Bailey, the famous harmonica player whose career was rather ruined by the racism of the American South. Kudos to the band’s blower Cory Younts, who takes the solo and honks throughout this tribute to a man whose memory the band, who are Opry regulars just as DeFord had been. The outro of the song includes a few bars of DeFord blowing, on a record in 2022.
Heritage is vital to the survival of country music and Old Crow Medicine Show, Opry members since 2013, are one of the best at offering it.