Finally, the moment certain fans have waited for – the moment that bluegrass virtuoso Molly Tuttle takes a hard left turn toward … well, bluegrass.
See, that’s the odd conundrum when introducing Molly Tuttle. She’s got the talent as a picker to solidify her reputation and musical prowess within bluegrass and outside of it – as well as the IBMA awards to back up the claim, if they’re needed. But aside from her 2017 Rise EP, her recorded material has veered elsewhere, including the indie folk-inspired When You’re Ready (that, admittedly, I found somewhat underwhelming) and a really solid covers project from 2020.
And you know, considering how she’s always said she’s never wanted to be pigeonholed as an artist into fitting into a typical mold, I get the transition away from that natural core, even if she’s now returned to it through Crooked Tree. After all, this is a very traditional bluegrass record that feels more like a showcase of talent than a sign of where she’s headed next – perhaps even a conventional one, given that you have your expected tracks about moonshine stills and murder ballads on display.
But when you have a murderer’s row of talent not only in the guest performers – including Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, Gillian Welch, Dan Tyminski and more – on top of the players behind the scenes – including production work from Jerry Douglas, it’s hard to complain. And that’s the tricky part with actually discussing Crooked Tree at length: it does exactly what is expected of it as a bluegrass album. The acoustics are warm and firm, the fiddle and the dobro play off one another to do the heavy lifting on the expected fast-paced selections, and it’s all incredibly solid in how it’s presented, never veering far outside of its comfort zone but performing what it does within it incredibly well.
But I think if there’s an area that’s actually worth noting as an overall improvement for Tuttle, it’s in the lyrics and themes. Sure, toward the beginning there’s an expected track about contraband in “Dooley’s Farm” that’s conventional as hell but still pretty great. And the “come together” narrative of “Big Backyard” is a little too twee even when working within the bluegrass songwriting structure – fun and silly as it all is with Old Crow Medicine Show’s contributions anyway. But I’d also say there’s a restlessness to this album that serves its characters and stories well, especially considering how the lonesome troubadour trope is a typically male-oriented idea that Tuttle retools into her own, like on “She’ll Change,” “Goodbye Girl,” and especially “Side Saddle.”
And the actual gender differences in how those characters are perceived is explored well, too, like the note about how society tends to view female characters in this mold as flighty or directionless, compared to the soul-searching journeys the men are apparently allowed to take. And that feeds well into the one-two punch of “Castilleja” and “The River Knows,” where that wandering woman has to evade a stalking prowler and the expected murder ballad of the latter track turns more into a self-defense mechanism.
Really, there’s plenty of sub-themes present in pairs of songs here – themes within themes, if you will. And while I wish this album tapped into the storytelling mold of those aforementioned two tracks more often, you’re going to get plenty of great moments regardless: “Dooley’s Farm” has that great, creaking minor echo behind it; “Big Backyard” and the title track are more metaphorical in their messages, in which I think the latter is more effective at showcasing how being different isn’t so bad and that there’s room for every one of us on the former anyway; “San Francisco Blues” is, perhaps ironically enough, the most traditional bluegrass song here and explores the loss of an authentic artistic scene that’s come with increased gentrification – it’s also very telling that “Nashville Mess Around” comes just before it; and right when Tuttle exclaims that she doesn’t want to ride “side saddle” as a lead performer and has Gillian Welch to back her up on it, she dives into her own story of her musical upbringing and coming into her own on “Grass Valley,” ultimately noting how those kind of communities are special in forging those musical connections and continue forging the next generation.
Really, consistency is this album’s greatest strength, where the only nitpicks I could muster, aside from noting weaker cuts like “Big Backyard” or “Flatland Girl” – the latter of which plays into similar territory as “She’ll Change” before it only not as effectively – is maybe wishing that certain tracks pushed harder with their overall dynamics or featured a bit less polish overall. Even then, there’s plenty to appreciate, like the darker, minor quick plucks of “Castilleja” or the fantastic liquid mandolin touches on “Over the Line” courtesy of Sierra Hull. And overall, Crooked Tree may only serve as an isolated highlight of what Tuttle can deliver at her best rather than a sign of what else is to come, but there’s enough improvements in the writing and presentation to call it more than that, as well. You just have to leave those crooked trees alone after all, it seems.
- Favorite tracks: “She’ll Change,” “Grass Valley,” “Over the Line” (feat. Sierra Hull), “Dooley’s Farm” (feat. Billy Strings), “Crooked Tree,” “Castilleja,” “The River Knows”
- Least favorite track: “Flatland Girl” (feat. Margo Price)