One woman, many wonders

The fourth concert in the 2022 Summer Sessions series began promisingly enough with a surprise by a quartet from Boston called Barnstar!

I was backstage with them before they went out to play, and Tony Lawson from WDVX radio asked how they would like to be introduced. They said “Just don’t mention that we’re from Boston.Let us get a few songs into our set, and then we’ll tell them that. We don’t want an audience from Bluegrass Country to be prejudiced by the place we call home.”

Molly Tuttle performs.
Molly Tuttle performs.

I don’t know why these guys thought anyone would be prejudiced against Boston. Every person in Molly Tuttle’s band, including Molly, went to school in Boston at The Berklee College of Music.

Boston is where I first saw Doc Watson, Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys, Maria Muldaur, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Jonathan Edwards, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and plenty of other Americana stalwarts. Americana music may never have evolved as strongly as it has without clubs like Passim’s in Harvard Square.

Barnstar! slowly won over the Bissell Park audience as it continued to grow in anticipation of Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway. Mark Erelli on guitar, Zachariah Hickman on bass, Jake Armerding on fiddle, and Taylor Armerding on mandolin made themselves quite at home with a thoroughly entertaining set of mostly original songs that ranged from “Subpoenaed in Texas, Sequestered in Memphis” to “Build It Up With Jesus,” which was introduced as a parable about one man who built his house on a rock foundation and another who built his house on Cape Cod. Then they worried out loud that maybe nobody got the joke.

Bass player Shelby Means backstage.
Bass player Shelby Means backstage.

Barnstar! flew all the way down from Boston for one show, to open for Molly Tuttle in Oak Ridge. What does that tell you? Four great guys, excellent musicians, soaring harmonizing singers, witty, warm, and glad to be here. I hope Summer Sessions brings them back. This was actually bassist Hickman’s second appearance in Oak Ridge. Two years ago he was (as he described it) the handsome young bass player with Rodney Crowell.

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes performs on the Performing Arts Pavilion stage in Oak Ridge.
Bronwyn Keith-Hynes performs on the Performing Arts Pavilion stage in Oak Ridge.
Kyle Tuttle
Kyle Tuttle

Molly Tuttle’s set list, taped to the concrete surface of the huge canopied stage at Bissell Park, listed 21 songs. It could easily have been a two-hour performance. And this the biggest Summer Sessions audience this season was electrified with expectations when the band came out. Unfortunately, Golden Highway's mandolinist Dominick Leslie was missing, but the band didn’t miss a beat. That just gave Kyle Tuttle more room to fill with banjo magic.

Fifteen minutes into the show, as Molly sang, "I was quick / Like a streak of lightning from “Castelleja,” the third song on the set list, we saw the first flashes of lightning from Molly’s eyes and from the towering black clouds crawling in from the Cumberland Plateau. And by the time Golden Highway got to their sixth song on the list, the Rolling Stones’ toy piano classic “Like a Rainbow,” it was a race against the inevitable.

When the song was over, so was the show.

In a matter of minutes, the band’s priceless instruments were safely out of the weather, speakers were draped with tarps, power was cut to the sound system, lightning and deeply resonant thunder was shaking the Civic Center’s windows, the huge audience was calmly booking it to their cars, and as I left the venue, the last person still on stage was Molly Tuttle, ready, if only she could, to do the remaining two-thirds of a show she had prepared. She seemed, for obvious reasons, thunder-struck.

It was a shame, and I wish we could have all run across the street to the Performing Arts Center (PAC) at the high school and listened to her play the rest of the night. Molly and her band only performed six songs, but that, believe it or not, for people who had never seen her play before, was enough to understand the wildly unique talent she possesses.

The first song in their short set was “She’ll Change,” a manifesto she co-wrote with Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show, and it came flying out from the stage like an F-16 off the deck of the USS Independence, a declaration so clear, flat-picking so intricate and assertive, it took your breath away.

If you’re fortunate to love her / Don’t let a moment pass you by / ‘Cause time’s running thin / She’ll be on the move again / Before you even say the word “goodbye.” 

She can paint the sun at midnight / Roll out the moon at the break of day / One woman, many wonders / One road, many ways / Just when you think you know her / She’ll change. 

Next came “Nashville Mess Around,” another new song from Molly’s album Crooked Tree, an IBMA candidate for Album of the Year in 2022. It’s a silly song, really, about a guy from Wisconsin visiting Nashville to go club hopping, look for babes, and blow his paycheck, in a Nashville that’s changed in the same sorry ways Austin and other formerly hip towns have changed, from town to metropolis. But this tune, filled with textbook bluegrass interplay, is incredibly catchy, with a yodeling riff at the end of the verses that’s perfect.

Next came “Castelleja,” another collaboration with Ketch Secor. Basically a corrido, named for the Indian paintbrush that proliferates from the Texas Hill Country to the Pacific, it’s a murder ballad, heavy on mystery and an explanation that is only hinted at. It is held together by the silver thread of Molly’s Spanish-tinged musicality, as steady as a cuttin’ horse crossing Death Valley at night.

Then, like a shelf cloud at the front of a derecho, foreshadowing the waves of deep thunder and the cloud-to-ground-to-cloud flashes we were seeing through the stately trees in the park, Golden Highway whirled into Bronwyn Keith-Hynes’ brilliant instrumental “Open Water,” from her 2020 album Fiddler’s Pastime. On her album, the tune features Sierra Hull. On stage here, Kyle Tuttle matched Bronwyn’s intense fireworks, and so did Molly, and so did Shelby Means. As the notes boiled faster and faster, I remembered staring into the glowing blue pool at ORNL’s Oak Ridge Research Reactor when I was a kid on a tour of the Lab with my class from Cedar Hill Elementary, imagining the invisible activity it contained, the energy, the speed, the particles, the power. That’s where the four musicians on that stage sent me ... to “Open Water.” They turned that uniquely-shaped pavilion into a reactor.

After that came “The River Knows,” a song from Crooked Tree that’s just plain spooky. There’s a boy and girl who grew up together. He wanted her. She didn’t want him. He ran off into the hills to make moonshine. One night she made the mistake of drinking with him. He made the bigger mistake of tryin’ something she didn’t want. And that’s all she wrote. Last thing you learn is that she had to rinse the blood out of her hair with river water.

By this time, everybody involved with the concert’s production end was scrambling to decide what to do, because thunder was shaking the trees. The band didn’t wait, sliding into their bluegrassy cover of “She’s a Rainbow,” the most inscrutable Rolling Stones recording ever, a rock song equivalent of a Peter Max poster. In Molly Tuttle’s hands, it was at least musically suspenseful.

Until lightning got too close.

I was the lighting director for the dance company MOMIX back in the day, and I would love, LOVE, to light a full concert by Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway on the ORHS Performing Arts Center stage. And not with the god-awful LED systems you can’t escape now. I want 1980s fresnels and lekos with incandescent bulbs, 50 of each, and real gels for color, and a hand-operated dimmer console. I could make the visual impact of this band as awesome as their music. Seeing them outdoors was great, but there’s a theatrical treasure here that no outdoor venue can reveal.

Barnstar! on stage. Left to right:  Jake Armerding, fiddle.  Zachariah Hickman, bass.  Mark Erelli, guitar.  Taylor Armerding, mandolin.
Barnstar! on stage. Left to right: Jake Armerding, fiddle. Zachariah Hickman, bass. Mark Erelli, guitar. Taylor Armerding, mandolin.

Maybe next year.

Next up for Summer Sessions, it’s the Songs From The Road Band from Asheville, plus the Henhouse Prowlers from Chicago, two bands that are completely unique. A very interesting booking.

Molly Tuttle and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes perform to the large crowd at A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge last Saturday.
Molly Tuttle and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes perform to the large crowd at A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge last Saturday.

John Job is a longtime Oak Ridge resident and frequent contributor to The Oak Ridger.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: One woman, many wonders