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In bluegrass, as in life, Molly Tuttle would rather be a 'Crooked Tree'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, we're bringing you stories of this year's first-time Grammy nominees.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

CHANG: And today, in our second installment, we're taking you to the Station Inn in Nashville, Tenn.

MOLLY TUTTLE: I've lived in Nashville for almost eight years now, and this was one of the first places I ever played or ever went to a show at.

CHANG: Bluegrass singer and guitar picker Molly Tuttle is a regular here, both on and off stage.

TUTTLE: It almost feels like you're in, like, a dive bar. Like, the ceiling's really low. There's lots of neon lights. They sell, like, these frozen pizzas and popcorns. They call it, like, a thing of popcorn. It's such a historic bluegrass venue where if you love bluegrass, you've heard of the Station Inn in Nashville.

CHANG: That history, it runs deep here. All you need to do is glance up at the walls to remember that.

TUTTLE: There's multiple Bill Monroe posters, Jim and Jesse, just, like, any bluegrass legend. There's a big Ralph Stanley sign behind me. So it's cool to just kind of look around and think about all the great music that's been made here.

CHANG: Tuttle is up for best bluegrass album at the Grammys this weekend and for best new artist, even though music has long been a part of her life, from her grandpa playing banjo on his farm in Illinois to her dad teaching banjo at a music shop in Palo Alto, where she grew up. She even played in the family bluegrass band with her siblings and cut an album with her dad when she was barely a teenager.

TUTTLE: Some of the songs that we recorded I still play to this day. Like, we did one, "Rain And Snow," which is an old ballad that the Grateful Dead also played, and I still play that one all the time in my shows and stuff. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUTTLE: (Singing) Rain and snow.

CHANG: Well, besides your family, what were some of your other early musical influences? I'm so curious.

TUTTLE: The first person who I remember just hearing her music and falling in love with it was Hazel Dickens. And I just heard her records around the house, and one day, I remember I heard a song that she wrote called "A Few Old Memories," and that one really spoke to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FEW OLD MEMORIES")

HAZEL DICKENS: (Singing) Just a few old memories that slipped in through the door.

CHANG: And just so people know, Hazel Dickens is, like, a female bluegrass pioneer.

TUTTLE: Yes. Yeah, she was one of the first women to lead her own band in a time when it was kind of rare. And I really fell in love with her voice first, and I think her songs are really strong - like, her songwriting, she has all these feminist themes. She writes about, like, worker's rights and stuff like that that later I learned to really appreciate, but I was so young when I first heard it, I just kind of gravitated towards her voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FEW OLD MEMORIES")

DICKENS: (Singing) For it all belongs to...

CHANG: I watched videos of you guitar picking, and I was just blown away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLLY TUTTLE SONG, "SHE'LL CHANGE")

CHANG: And I just want to make sure everybody understands, you were the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association's guitar player of the year award. What is it like to be recognized in a category that's traditionally been so dominated by men?

TUTTLE: I remember, like, hearing that I was the first woman to even be nominated, let alone win, and I just had to, like, take a minute to let it sink in because I don't know exactly why specifically guitar is so male-dominated. Like, even just going into a guitar store, I kind of bond with my female friends who play guitar because we're all like, ugh, we get treated like we know nothing about guitars when we walk into a guitar store. And that can be really frustrating, and I think that's just one small example of how it feels sometimes.

CHANG: That still happens. You walk into a guitar store. You're unrecognized, and you're talked to like you're learning about the instrument for the first time or something.

TUTTLE: (Laughter) It hasn't happened in a while, only because I avoid going into guitar stories that I don't know the people who work there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLLY TUTTLE SONG, "SHE'LL CHANGE")

CHANG: Well, beyond your challenges in the music industry, you've also talked pretty publicly about personal challenges, including living with alopecia areata, which is this autoimmune disease that has led to complete hair loss for you. I feel like we don't talk enough about hair loss among women. Why do you think that is?

TUTTLE: Well, I think it's so taboo. Like, the thing about alopecia that I realized was I was keeping it a secret until I was in my early 20s, and I think so many women and men do keep it a secret. It's like a - it's a visible, like, physical difference that you can cover up.

CHANG: I was going to ask you about that because you used to perform with a hat on. Then you switched to wigs, and now sometimes you perform without any of that. Tell me why you made that decision.

TUTTLE: Yeah. As a kid, I always wore hats up until I went to high school. So I started wearing wigs in high school, and that was a huge relief. I felt just suddenly like I blended in for the first time, and I didn't - it was like a weight off my shoulders. But then it started to eat away at me as well because I was keeping it a secret. And so it wasn't until I went to college, so in my early 20s, that I started just practicing telling people about it, and it was really hard at first. So I posted on social media about alopecia. And then from there, I've just been trying to get more comfortable taking it off in shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUTTLE: And it's getting really hot up here, so I actually thought I would take my wig off for this next one.

(APPLAUSE)

TUTTLE: With this album, my song "Crooked Tree" I wrote inspired by growing up with alopecia, and it's all about embracing your differences. So that's, for me, a moment in my shows where if I feel in the right mood, I can talk about it a little bit and even take off my wig and play that song - and so kind of slowly learning to express that side of who I am in my music as well, which has felt really good.

CHANG: What does being a crooked tree mean to you?

TUTTLE: To me, it just means embracing who you are because I think we're all crooked trees. Everyone has something that makes them feel unique and different from other people. So with this album, I was just trying to incorporate different parts of myself that I felt like I hadn't included before when I express myself creatively.

CHANG: So I hear you're going to perform a song for us, is that right?

TUTTLE: Yes. Yeah, I'd love to do "Crooked Tree." Let me just try to find my guitar pick. I got to use a tuner for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I can't leave it up to chance.

(Playing guitar, singing) Two trees in the forest - one was crooked. One was straight. Crimson bark and emerald needles growing day by day. And though they looked so different, they enjoyed the rain the same, side by side. A chickadee had told them of a darkness on the land, spinning blades that came to visit, carried by a man, and every other tree would see them cut down where they stand by and by. Oh, can't you see? A crooked tree won't fit into the mill machine. They're left to grow wild and free. Oh, I'm proud to be a crooked tree.

CHANG: Bluegrass musician Molly Tuttle, she is a first-time Grammy nominee for best new artist and best bluegrass album. Thank you so much for being with us, Molly, and best of luck to you.

TUTTLE: Oh, yeah. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROOKED TREE")

TUTTLE: (Singing) The perfect trees are driven down the mountain to the mill. They turn them into toothpicks and $20 bills. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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