The first weekend of October presented a wickedly hard choice for roots music fans, with four major festivals going on around the country, including the World of Bluegrass and the IBMA Awards. Our Roots team went east to Raleigh to film the awards for a web stream and an edited broadcast next year. I went west to the Bluegrass Situation’s annual festival and filed a report for our friends out there. It was stellar and I was glad to get a feeling for roots music in L.A., but the day-long affair was light on bluegrass music per se, and I definitely missed IBMA, an event I’ve been loving for 15 years. The aspect I missed most after the people was IBMA’s amazing forum for discovering new bands and artists.
Fortunately, this week at Roots offers a bit of the emerging artistry I might have seen, including an iconoclastic band from North Carolina and a young woman from California and now Nashville by way of the Berklee College of Music who’s giving me premonitions of a big bright future (for her, not me). She’s got a clear, shaded voice. She works with great collaborators in settings from deep old-time to contemporary folk. And if I may pay her a compliment that really means something, after listening to her pick for 20 minutes on line, Molly Tuttle inspired me to pull out my acoustic guitar and try to play just a little bit like her.
Molly grew up playing in a family band with her dad, a well-known bluegrass musician and educator. And at some point, and I can’t wait to ask her about this, she decided to take the guitar way beyond strumming or even fiddle tune convention. Whether it’s single line leads, melodic figures opening a tune or complex fills, her flatpicking is remarkably clear, articulate and fresh. She cascades notes with lush use of open strings, and she keeps tone and melody absolutely front and center. Like all of us, she’s been influenced by Tony Rice and Doc Watson, but being from a new generation, I hear shades of David Grier, Scott Nygaard and Bryan Sutton.
Her skills are being noticed, to say the least. Molly’s made the stage at Prairie Home Companion, won the Merlefest songwriting contest and become one of the few woman ever featured on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine. She’s made a gorgeous 5-song EP with fiddler John Mailander and is now prepping a fan-funded debut full-length album of her own original music. I’ve heard Molly Tuttle’s name around for a while, but now I’m so glad to be focused on her burgeoning artistry, as we all will be on Wednesday night.
Of course I could write all day about Frank Solivan, our show closing favorite. I’ve been a fan and friend for some time now, and I wrote a feature profile when he played Roots a couple of years ago. But to update things, Frank’s band Dirty Kitchen was recognized as the top instrumental group in bluegrass at the IBMA Awards last year. That’s a powerful accomplishment for a quartet but look at the constituent parts: Frank’s versatile mandolin, Chris Luquette’s fleet fingered guitar and the dazzling banjo of Mike Munford. In 2014 the boys released the deep and mesmerizing Cold Spell album, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. The ensemble simply cleaned the floor at their home-town Washington Area Music Association Awards, winning eight categories including album and artist of the year. And now Frank’s wrapping up production on an upcoming Family, Friends & Heroes album, featuring guest appearances by Del and Ronnie McCoury, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and assorted family members including a posthumous recording of his late mom singing on “Wayfaring Stranger.”
Rounding out our bluegrass trifecta will be the young, traditionally-minded band Mountain Faith from Sylva, NC in the mountain region of the state. As the name implies, the gospel is strong with these guys, but not the whole picture. When they auditioned (successfully) for that wild television show America’s Got Talent, they played One Republic’s “Counting Stars,” and they embrace touches from other genres that are shaping modern bluegrass. Three of group are siblings and the band has been rolling since 2000. An anchoring gig at Dollywood has put them in front of a lot of new fans. They arrive at Roots with a new single and an album coming soon.
We weren’t planning a bluegrass theme show as this all came together. Nevertheless, holding down the vital “something-else” slot this week, in the third set, is the brother duo Pawnshop Kings. And they are something else. Joel and Scott Owen took what they soaked up in their home state of Arkansas, moved to Los Angeles and made an album while overdosing on Stevie Wonder and the Beatles. So it’s accessible folk pop with a rootsy core, and they pack a striking vocal blend. They’re touring hard and inspiring new fans and followers.
So it seems there’s exceptional picking, songwriting and band craft on tap this week. Good thing too because that’s why we get up in the morning.