It’s the day before New Year’s Eve in Nashville, and Molly Tuttle is in a dressing room at the Ryman Auditorium, getting ready to open Old Crow Medicine Show’s annual year-end concerts later that night. Tuttle has played the Ryman stage in the past, but this time she does so with a prominent asterisk next to her name: The bluegrass guitarist is a Best New Artist Grammy nominee.
Tuttle’s about to turn 30 in January (the 14th, to be exact) and she’s reflecting on the last decade, when at just 19 she left her native Bay Area of California for Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “It’s really cool to think back on the last 10 years, where there’s been so many times of doubt where I’m like, ‘I don’t know if this is working,’” Tuttle tells Rolling Stone. “But in the last couple years of my twenties, it’s all come together.”
This past spring, Tuttle released her third solo album, Crooked Tree, to rave reviews. She and her band Golden Highway tore through live sets at big festivals coast-to-coast; they’ll play Bonnaroo and Under the Big Sky this summer. In September, she took home the International Bluegrass Music Award (IBMA) for Female Vocalist of the Year. (The organization previously named her Guitar Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018.)
But a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist hits differently. The field is global and encompasses all genres: Tuttle’s fellow nominees include names like U.K. indie-rockers Wet Leg, Brazilian singer-songwriter Anitta, and Italian rock band Måneskin. To see a bluegrass artist contending for Best New Artist is itself historic — Tuttle is the first ever nominated in the category since its inception in 1960.
“[Being nominated] is wild. It’s not something I ever imagined would happen. It’s exciting for me to represent bluegrass in that way,” says Tuttle, who scored a second Grammy nomination in the Best Bluegrass Album category for Crooked Tree, opposite genres legends the Del McCoury Band and Peter Rowan. While Crooked Tree is a purposeful offering of Tuttle paying homage to her bluegrass roots and to those who have supported her from the beginning, the artist herself remains a moving target, happily meandering beyond the “high, lonesome sound” of bluegrass into the realms of country, folk, and pop.
“There’s part of me that just wants to try and play every style of music all at once. But then there’s another freeing thing about giving yourself these restrictions, ‘Well, I’m going to play straight-ahead bluegrass and try to write songs with chords that people could jam on easily,’” Tuttle says. “The challenge nowadays is that you’re exposed to all sorts of different music. There’s this side of me that still wants to experiment and push the boundaries.”
Raised in Palo Alto, California, Tuttle was surrounded by musicians from the outset. Her father Jack is a multi-instrumentalist and music instructor. Growing up on a farm in Illinois, he attended local bluegrass festivals and religiously tuned into the Grand Ole Opry, all while playing music with his father, a banjoist. When Jack migrated to the West Coast and became a music teacher, he formed “The Tuttles with AJ Lee,” a family band that included Molly and her two brothers, Sullivan and Michael.
“Bluegrass has always been part of my family,” Tuttle says. “I heard my dad playing and we’d go back to visit the farm to jam with my grandfather and my aunt. I always gravitated towards music. When I finally got a guitar, it all clicked for me.”
Initially, Tuttle tried violin, but didn’t take to it, because “it’s so abrasive sounding at first.” There was also an attempt at piano, but Tuttle wasn’t into reading music and the formality of lessons. Guitar felt more relaxed, more welcoming. “I could strum and play along with my dad,” she says. “I also like to sing, and it’s such a nice instrument to accompany yourself singing.”
With guitar legends like Tony Rice, Dave Rawlings, David Grier, Clarence White, and Doc Watson inspiring the young, hungry guitarist, Tuttle occupied herself with learning flatpicking and fingerpicking. She deciphered solos and sat for hours working on different guitar pieces with her father and brothers.
Tuttle was not just a natural at guitar; she held the potential to become a virtuoso. By 2012, she left home for the Berklee College of Music and, that same year, won the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at the MerleFest string-music festival in North Carolina. After Berklee, Tuttle moved to Nashville in 2015 in hopes of establishing a solo career. Landing in a house on Petway Avenue in East Nashville, she became roommates with another wildly ambitious guitar phenom looking to make a name for himself, Billy Strings, now regarded as one of the hottest live acts in the nation.
“I was touring in my minivan, and Billy had his van,” Tuttle says. “We were both always on the road.”
On those rare occasions where Tuttle and Strings were in town, the duo would walk across the street to the home of Lindsay Lou, a rising singer-songwriter in the bluegrass and Americana world, and jam on her porch. “[Lindsay] was kind of the ringleader for all the big jam sessions,” Tuttle says. “She’d throw all these parties and host house concerts that were so much fun.”
That camaraderie between Tuttle, Strings, Lou, and others like Sierra Hull, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Infamous Stringdusters is what’s helping fuel a fresh wave of appreciation for bluegrass. Interest in the genre is rising, with new fans drawn to artists who explore other musical landscapes.
“Our generation of bluegrass players are really pushing in some new directions,” Tuttle says. “I feel lucky to be part of this scene that’s breaking down barriers.”
Tuttle broke down a large barrier in her personal life by finding strength in her medical diagnosis of alopecia universalis, the loss of one’s body hair. On social media and onstage in recent years, she’s found solidarity and support in sharing her story. In 2019, she walked the red carpet of the 18th Annual Americana Honors & Awards without her wig.
“The surprising thing for me is how [sharing my story] helped myself gain confidence. I didn’t realize how much of a weight it would take off my shoulders. I always wanted to share my story in order to help others, and that’s still important to me,” Tuttle says. “It really has helped me grow as a person and helped me do things that I never imaged I’d be able to do, like take my wig off onstage.”
Readying herself for soundcheck at the Ryman, Tuttle gathers up the rest of the members of Golden Highway and starts the walk toward the stage. But she takes one last moment to appreciate how far she’s come — and where she may go after the Best New Artist winner is announced Feb. 5 at the Grammys.
“Ever since I was a kid, this is what I wanted to do. And even when it gets hard, I’m going to commit to doing this until I’m old,” Tuttle says. “I’m going to find a way to make it work somehow.”