Though she was raised in California's Bay Area, Molly Tuttle grew up in bluegrass. She regularly went to Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis shows, and listening to records with her music teacher dad. The twenty-four-year-old has been performing since the age of eleven, and for this year's IBMA Awards, she's been nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year trophies. Most notably, she's also the first woman ever to be nominated for IBMA Guitar Player of the Year. Her flatpicking playing style is deeply rooted in bluegrass, though she's carved out a fresh sound all her own.
Now based Nashville, Tuttle took some time to talk about her work, and what it feels like to be an award nominee who didn't notice it was odd to be a female guitar player until she was already in college.
INDY: How did you get started playing guitar?
MOLLY TUTTLE: I started when I was eight years old. My dad was a music teacher in the Bay Area for a long time, like over thirty years. I always saw him playing music, and I really wanted to play music. When I was eight, I asked for a guitar so my dad bought me one, and he started teaching me a couple tunes on the guitar.
What's your favorite part of playing a lot of festivals? On your tour schedule, it seems like you've got a lot of festival appearances over a more traditional tour.
I love festivals, because it's when I get to see all my friends. You have this big community of people all over the country and you're all playing similar festivals, so you reunite and it feels like a big network that's kind of like a family or community. That's kind of the best part, you get to run into these people who you might only see at festivals, or you might run into them on the road or different places. But it's always just a lot of fun to reconnect with different members of the music community.
You're the first woman nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association's Guitar Player of the Year award. What does that feel like?
It feels really exciting. I think that's the award that I got nominated for that I'm most excited about. I've spent a lot of my life studying guitar. In school, it was really rare for a woman to be playing guitar so that's kind of a special one for me.
What does it mean to you? Does it weigh more heavily on you that you're the first woman?
Let me think about that. [Laughs] I mean, it means a lot to me because I didn't have many women to look up to who played guitar, who played leads on guitar. I had a few really great mentors and heroes that played lead on guitar. It means a lot to me that hopefully I can be that for younger women who are maybe wanting to learn guitar or see me and thinking, Oh, that looks cool; I could see myself doing that. I didn't have too much of that growing up, so it does mean a lot to me because hopefully I could be that for someone else.
Being the first woman nominated for Guitar Player of the Year, do you personally feel like this could be a turning point in the industry?
I don't know if me being nominated is the turning point, but I do feel like it is just kind of all snowballing, and I think more and more women are coming up. There's a lot more women starting bands in the bluegrass world and in general, and a lot more women instrumentalists, so I think it's all just building. As more and more women do it, it'll just create more, because other younger women will see so many women out there at festivals and at shows.
Why do you think it took this long?
I think there's a lot of factors that might make it intimidating, because it's such a male-dominated field. I've had instances where I feel pretty uncomfortable being the only woman in the room, or if certain people I'm around aren't being supportive of women playing music. I've had definitely my fair share of sexist comments. So it can be really intimidating and it can be uncomfortable and I think maybe that deters women. Also, when you don't see that many other women doing something that you might want to do, sometimes subconsciously you don't even see it as an option.
Luckily, I had a lot of female role models who lead their own bands and played. I got to see Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick a lot growing up. My dad was always really supportive of me, and I don't think he ever made it clear to me that it was a little bit unusual for girls to be playing lead on guitar. I never realized that until I went to college later and I was the only woman playing guitar, or in a lot of my classes. I never had a guitar class with another woman. There were other women who I would see at the school, who were studying guitar, but I just didn't happen to have any of them in my classes. I think thirty percent of the school is female, but in the guitar department, I maybe only knew of one or two other women.
Do you feel kind of like a trailblazer, then?
I don't know...maybe. I mean, hopefully, there will be more women coming up in the next generation who are playing leads on guitar. I think it's becoming more and more common. I didn't realize it was that uncommon until I got there [Berklee College of Music] and it was like, Whoa, this is crazy. I think I'm glad I didn't really have that realization until later, because it probably would have kind of psyched me out a little bit.