(Editor’s Note: Explore more of our Artist of the Month content on Molly Tuttle here.)
It’s halfway through 2023, and Molly Tuttle is having an incredible year. The Grammy-winning artist released her new record — made with her band, Golden Highway — on July 21 via Nonesuch Records. Only days before, Tuttle and Golden Highway were nominated in seven categories at the 34th Annual IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards.
In the middle of her ongoing tour, we caught up with Tuttle and the members of Golden Highway to celebrate her selection as July’s Artist of the Month and to go behind the scenes of making City of Gold. Luckily, it’s easy to make music with friends, and the entire group goes way back. Tuttle says Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Dominick Leslie (mandolin), Shelby Means (bass), and Kyle Tuttle (banjo), have been a part of her musical life for years.
“I’ve known everyone in the band since I was in my late teens, early twenties,” Tuttle explains via video call.
Tuttle and Keith-Hynes attended classes and bluegrass jams together at Berklee College of Music. She met Kyle Tuttle (no relation) at around the age of 17 at an IBMA jam, and met Means while she was in Boston with the all-women string band Della Mae. Tuttle says she and Leslie met as kids, when they would both play the same bluegrass festivals.
“When Molly told me what she was planning, and asked me to join the band and told me who else was going to be in it, I was thinking, ‘I’m already friends with all these people. This is gonna be really cool!’” Means said during our group interview.
When it came time to record City of Gold, the group worked with modern roots music icon Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show on much of the writing. Tuttle says there’s a definite Old Crow influence on the tracklist, which makes sense given “Down Home Dispensary” is a tune on the record originally written for the group best known for hits like “Wagon Wheel.” Tuttle said she initially worried the song was “too Old Crow” for Golden Highway, but is glad it ended up on the record. She and Secor got “into a good groove,” as she puts it, and churned out the tunes for City of Gold in about six months, often while driving in the car or passing around instruments during jam sessions. At least one track, though, was extremely collaborative. Tuttle, Means, Secor and Melody Walker (formerly of Front Country) all had a hand in finishing the tune.
Jerry Douglas, the iconic resonator guitar player who’s worked with almost every name in the bluegrass industry, produced the album. Tuttle said that whereas she had only a few studio days booked for her previous album, Crooked Tree, the group had nearly two weeks of studio time to work with Douglas this time around. When asked what it was like working with the legend, every member of Golden Highway said they’d had a great experience.
“Working with someone who’s a hero, there’s a lot of baggage that comes along with that,” Kyle Tuttle said. “But he’s the kindest dude. He supported us in a really cool way. It wasn’t hard or intimidating or anything like that. I thought it was easy and fun. Every now and then he’d play on a track with us.”
Whether it was encouraging Golden Highway to take breaks or telling funny jokes, the group agreed that Douglas made sure everyone was comfortable and having a good time. Keith-Hynes said Douglas told the band that NASCAR drivers walk slowly to their cars to slow down their nervous systems, encouraging the musicians to do the same on walks between takes.
“Jerry has been a huge musical hero to all of us,” Leslie said. “Getting to spend all that time in the studio was the thrill of a lifetime. We all knew we were in really good hands with him musically going in, but what I didn’t realize was how good of a hang Jerry is. He [was] filling up any moment of dead air with a great story to break the ice.”
On tour, the band’s camaraderie is just as apparent as it is in the studio, or as it was in the group’s music video for “Next Rodeo.” After Tuttle catches her no-good, fictitious cowboy boyfriend cheating, the band collectively decides to kidnap him and give him what for — although, of course, all in good fun. They say they haven’t (yet) had to kidnap anybody on tour, but that doesn’t mean the on-the-road lifestyle isn’t taxing. Kyle Tuttle said he missed a connecting flight the night before the album release show and was up all night driving to make it in time.
“I was checking into the hotel and the sun was already up,” Kyle Tuttle said. “[There was] orange sky and some palm trees. I thought, ‘Damn it’s pretty. I sure wish I was in bed right now.’”
While it’s a good time to be in Golden Highway, it’s also just a great time to be in bluegrass, the group says. All agreed that bluegrass is having a moment, and were happy to report multiple sold-out festivals with lineups that include country, folk, bluegrass, blues, and other roots artists. Means said it’s incredible to see bluegrass acts opening for bigger country artists, because it means the genre is a real selling point.
“I wonder if it’s a backlash to how crazy everything is with technology,” Keith-Hynes thinks aloud. “People want something real. Nothing is more real than people playing acoustic music on acoustic instruments.”
Tuttle said the internet has also really leveled the playing field, making more music accessible to all kinds of fans. Golden Highway has had its own viral moments on TikTok, the short-form video social media app. Earlier this year Tuttle posted a 2022 Halloween clip that has now hit nearly one million views; inspired by a track on the new album, “Alice in the Bluegrass,” the band members are each dressed as a character from Alice in Wonderland, with Tuttle starring as the Queen of Hearts.
“It took people by surprise to see this bluegrass band playing Jefferson Airplane in full Alice in Wonderland dress,” Tuttle said.
As for what’s ahead, the group says they hope to see everyone out on the road. Means shared that the band will announce more dates soon, and that they’ll be touring both coasts after the annual IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards in September. Tuttle and Golden Highway are currently nominated for Entertainer of the Year, Instrumental Group of the Year, Song of the Year and Album of the Year. Tuttle is also nominated for Collaborative Recording of the Year, Female Vocalist of the Year, and Guitar Player of the Year. Bronwyn Keith-Hynes is nominated for Fiddle Player of the Year.
Photo Credit: Chelsea Rochelle