One of the most talented and sought after banjo players in bluegrass, Kyle Tuttle’s life has been full of the highest of highs and lowest of lows in recent years, from a marriage and divorce to the surprise death of close friend and bandmate Jeff Austin to the loss of his job due to COVID and finally hitting the road as a member of Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway.
All of that and more are documented on Labor of Lust (out February 16), an 11-song expedition taking listeners on a deeply personal and sonically diverse journey of tragedy and triumph. Recorded across three separate sessions in Nashville dating back to 2018, the record also documents a significant chunk of Tuttle’s life that, despite the length of time and changes that come with it, aren’t lacking a central theme. This led him to describing the project as “a long work-in-progress,” due to how its focus shifted throughout the more than five years of bringing it to life.
“By the time it was all said and done, this was a pretty eclectic group of songs,” Tuttle tells BGS. “There’s some stuff with an electric band that includes drums and me on electric banjo, others with traditional string band arrangements and some that meet in the middle for a more jamgrass sound.”
One of the songs that bridge the gap between these two worlds of bluegrass is “Hard to Say,” a song that sees Tuttle grieving the loss of Austin, his marriage, and his job all at the same time. It’s anchored by his blistering banjo backbone with introspective lyrics like, “Knowing that it’s gone and gone for good, makes you wonder what the hell you’re waiting on?” that serve as a message to himself and anybody listening to ask the questions you need to ask, then play another one.
“Even though the music and lyrics were written over a handful of years, loss and learning to deal with it on a personal level is central to this record,” indicates Tuttle. “That being said, there’s a lot of joy within these songs too. I don’t want to make it seem like I wrote music for five years and all I experienced was misery. Loss is something we all have to deal with at one time or another, and my way of dealing with it was to write some of this music.”
Speaking by phone from his snowed-in Nashville home following a mid-January winter storm, Tuttle opened up about how he approaches being a bandleader compared to his current gig with Golden Highway, being stuck in a Bob Ross painting, choosing to work doing something you love, and more.
You’re notorious for staying extremely busy in your musical endeavors, from sitting in with folks on stage and in the studio to your stints with the Jeff Austin band, (your current gig with) Molly Tuttle, and your own compositions and projects, like Labor of Lust. With that in mind, how do you approach your own music versus being a member of someone else’s band?
Kyle Tuttle: It’s a bit different, because with my own show I’m the bandleader, along with other variables. With my shows, I play with lots of different members, I don’t have one set group of people that know my body of material super well, but rather lots of friends I can call on who all have different strengths. For that reason, when fronting my own band I’m more in the headspace of trying to wrangle all these people and variables together for a cohesive show, whereas with Molly we all have our roles that are specifically defined. One role isn’t more comfortable to me than the other, they just both require different things from me.
Is that comfort what had you leaning on friends like Travis Book, Dominick Leslie, and Lindsay Lou in the studio instead of session players?
It speaks very similarly to what we were just talking about with putting together a version of the Kyle Tuttle Band for shows. I wouldn’t use the term session player though, because even though all of these people are my friends they can also be called “session players” for their work on other’s records, because they’re all so good at what they do. I pick them very specifically based on their strengths and what they’ll bring to the music. I’ve been lucky through my years in the business to build personal connections with an awesome group of people that I can call when I’m looking to create something.
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Although not an original, I really enjoy your cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Turn On The Radio” that closes the album. What drew you to that song of his in particular instead of “Coconut” or another of Nilsson’s gems?
I’m gonna have to work on a “Coconut” cover next, because that song is awesome! In all seriousness, [“Turn On The Radio”] felt like a thematically appropriate way to close this album. At the end of the day, I’m just a jamgrass stoner that plays banjo wanting to make a record that people can enjoy and have fun with. This record has some heavy undertones, so I felt like it deserved a nice ribbon on top to end it. It speaks to me big time, [about] remembering those near and dear who you’ve lost, especially if they’re an artist doing something you can hear. That sentiment of “turn on your record player, listen to my song, turn on your night light baby, I’m gone” felt like the right words to capture that feeling even though I didn’t say them, Harry did! I’ve loved the song for a while, so when I began putting this record together it immediately made sense to close it with this.
In terms of your own songs, I understand that “Trailer In Boulder Canyon” came together at two different times, similar to the recording process for all of Labor of Lust?
That’s a funny one, because as I said previously, I’m just a jamgrass stoner banjo player. First and foremost it’s a fun, feel good song about a magical place — a shitty little trailer on the side of a mountain up in Nederland, Colorado, where you don’t have to worry about any of your troubles or cares and just get to play fiddles and banjos and have fun all day. There’s a great jamgrass scene up there due to Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt basically starting Leftover Salmon up there. Years later some of The String Cheese Incident guys moved there followed by Jeff Austin, leading to the eventual forming of Yonder Mountain String Band there as well. There’s such a rich history of the music I love so much in that goofy little mountain town.
I initially wrote the chorus and first verse for the song as a goofy little ditty after it bounced around in my head for a while. I went up there when Vince put together a memorial concert for Jeff to help raise money for his family and so people could grieve together and ended up writing the second half of the song driving up the canyon road to get there. So like a lot of things on this record, part of it came to me at one point before finishing it off much later.
You’ve got three instrumentals on this record and another mostly instrumental tune in “Two Big Hearts.” What variations do songs like those have compared to ones with lyrics in the creation process?
The process is relatively the same, because no matter if I write with lyrics or melody I’m starting with some short idea and building around that nugget of information piece by piece. If it’s a melody, it’ll probably come out as an instrumental, but if it’s with lyrics it’s probably going to come out as a song with vocals. Even though it’s one track, “Two Big Hearts” is really two songs. The lyrics in it don’t come in until the second song, nearly four minutes in, but I felt that both were similar enough that they should be together and presented as one idea. I don’t think I’ll ever play one part of it without playing the other.
On “Not Quite Spring,” you’re singing about being stuck inside a Bob Ross painting. How’d that idea come about?
That’s a COVID song. I was sitting around on the couch watching a lot of Bob Ross’s The Joy Of Painting, just killing time like we all were back then. All of his paintings were titled and each episode of his show is titled after the painting he does in it. [“Not Quite Spring” is season 25, episode 3]. It’s of this spooky, huge mountain that’s covered in snow and frozen. A lot of his paintings are happy sunsets and warm things like a pond reflecting the trees around it, a stark contrast to this one that’s cold, dark and lonely, which is exactly how I felt at the time trapped inside my house.
In the album’s liner notes you allude to a life in music often being painted in glamor, when in reality it’s a consistent grind where persistence pays off. Is that message of sticking to it what you’re singing about on “Saddle Up?”
“Saddle Up” is the term I have for getting up every day and doing it again. It’s the idea that you may not have succeeded today or done everything you wanted to do the way you wanted to do it, which is what I’m touching on with the lyric, “The past can’t be where my best is.”
I feel like persistence defines my own life and career. Anyone who works in pursuit of a skill or art is always striving to get better. Even outside of that, we’re all working on our personal relationships and doing better by the people around us. Hopefully our best work, whether it be art or personal growth, is ahead of us and it’s not all downhill from here. It’s also a message I wish to impart on any listener or friend going through a rough patch to remind them that brighter days are on the horizon.
With Labor of Lust’s themes of personal growth in mind, what’s one resolution you have for yourself, music or otherwise, in 2024?
I’m actually trying to play the banjo even more, not from the standpoint of traveling and playing more shows, but just tinkering with it more in my downtime. It’s an interesting duality, tying your work to something you love. It’s a tricky thing to do because the lines between work and play are instantly blurred and made one. If it’s all work and no play it makes Jack a dull boy, so my resolution is to just keep the banjo in my hands for fun and to work smarter, not harder, which comes back to the idea that the past is not where my best work is.
Photo courtesy of the artist.