It’s been a steady upward climb for 30-year-old acoustic guitar phenom Molly Tuttle. The accolades came early: Back in 2017, Tuttle won the International Bluegrass Association’s Guitar Player of the Year Award (amazingly, the first woman to do so). She repeated as winner the following year. Over time she’s collaborated with many of the finest players in the bluegrass world, established herself as a formidable songwriter and emotive singer, and put out a series of excellent studio recordings.
It was Tuttle’s 2022 release Crooked Tree—her first with her bluegrass group, Golden Highway, along with such notable guests as Billy Strings, Margo Price, and Gillian Welch—that launched her career into the bluegrass stratosphere. That record won the Best Bluegrass Album category at the 65th annual Grammy Awards in February 2023, and Tuttle was also among the ten nominees for Best New Artist—the only acoustic/country performer. It was also named Album of the Year at the 2023 International Folk Music Awards.
Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway’s second Nonesuch album, City of Gold, was released at the end of July 2023, and it may very well eclipse the unexpected success of its predecessor. It certainly deserves to: In my view it’s a stronger record in every way. The album, with producer Jerry Douglas once again at the helm along with Tuttle, was recorded in Nashville after Tuttle and Golden Highway had a year of touring together under their belts, so it really feels like more of a group effort than Crooked Tree. The mysterious—and essential—telepathy that is a characteristic of the finest bluegrass bands is very much on display throughout City of Gold, as Tuttle, fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, mandolin master Dominick Leslie, bassist Shelby Means, and banjo ace Kyle Tuttle (no relation) mesh beautifully, playing together as a flawless unit, singing perfect harmonies, and effortlessly passing the baton around for short, virtuosic solo bursts. Douglas adds his always-welcome dobro touch to three of the tunes, Dave Matthews sounds fantastic on a vocal duet with Tuttle (“Yosemite”), and Jordan Perlson plays drums on “Next Rodeo,” an ode to “tearing up the road with a five-piece band.”
As great as the singing and playing is on this album, it’s really the strength of the songwriting that makes City of Gold so compelling. All 13 songs were written by Tuttle and Ketch Secor, the multi-instrumentalist co-founder of Old Crow Medicine Show, who also co-wrote 10 of the 13 songs on Crooked Tree. Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from traditional bluegrass and old-time music tropes—your basic barnburners, waltzes, folkish blues, and moving ballads. But lyrically, the songs are all over the place: “El Dorado” is a vivid slice of history told by “Gold Rush Kate from the Golden State/ With a nugget around my neck”; “Yosemite” paints a picture of a rocky relationship that falls apart on a road trip; the breathless “San Joaquin” twists a traditional train anthem into a song about pot smuggling; “Alice in the Bluegrass” cleverly recasts a familiar Lewis Carroll episode in a “backwoods wonderland”; the dark “Goodbye Mary” seems to be a haunting tale about a doomed pregnancy; and the album-closing “The First Time I Fell in Love” is a charming slice of Tuttle autobiography, with a twist on the title I won’t spoil.
I suppose I’ll have to wait for a live album down the road or jump onto YouTube to hear Tuttle really cut loose on guitar for extended passages. But there’s still plenty of flash and substance to absorb and devour here in Tuttle’s economical playing on two Pre-War dreadnoughts—one Brazilian rosewood and the other mahogany—as well as an Indian rosewood Huss and Dalton OM.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.