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Maren Morris and Molly Tuttle tell their origin stories anew

On their new albums, Morris and Tuttle are both sharpening their artistic identities while reinventing what staying invested in their genres of origin can look and sound like.
Samantha Muljat/Harper Smith
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Courtesy of the artist
On their new albums, Morris and Tuttle are both sharpening their artistic identities while reinventing what staying invested in their genres of origin can look and sound like.

People often underestimate how central self-reinvention is to country and bluegrass, where the idea of carrying on tradition and the appearance of continuity holds tremendous weight. But some of those genres' most riveting figures, Maren Morris and Molly Tuttle included, find ways to evolve without rendering themselves unfamiliar. As pre-teens, they were regional sensations in country and bluegrass, respectively, before they climbed into considerably broader and brighter spotlights in the 2010s. At this point, they're well established in their careers, exemplars of musical possibility, and yet they each chose this moment to tell their origin stories anew.

During the opening lines of "Circles Around This Town," a single from Morris' new album Humble Quest that's gotten some radio airplay, she rolls her eyes recalling the audacity of her younger self relying on weathered wheels and homegrown recordings to transport her from Texas into the successful songwriting ranks of Nashville, Tenn. What she dwells on are the work ethic and want-to that she brought to town with her, or as she puts it with casual conviction in the hook: "Try'na say somethin' with meanin', somethin' worth singin' about." Those are values heralded in her industry's most high-minded mythologies. Even if her initial Nashville efforts registered as low-key irreverence at the time of their release, she reframes them as the follow-through of a true believer in songcraft — one who's kept the faith.

Tuttle concludes her new full-length Crooked Tree, out April 1, with a softly awe-struck, nostalgic tale about a formative trek of her own. In "Grass Valley," she's back to being a guitar-toting 10-year-old, enthralled by her first experience of a long-running California bluegrass festival, and longing to learn the shared repertoire that'll enable her to join the jamming. Before the song's over, she fast-forwards to the present, where as a now widely recognized performer, she observes another kid picker — also a girl, she takes care to point out — eager for the chance to participate. Tuttle's recollections complement how the bluegrass community likes to see itself: as a welcoming, intergenerational world of straightforwardly traditional and longhaired newgrass extremes, where standard tunes and tested techniques get passed down and young talent is nurtured.

Both of these songs convey a sense of fulfilled promise and progression, and also the upholding of genre values. For all that Tuttle and Morris have accomplished in terms of musical impact, award tallies and audience size, they're indicating that they haven't abandoned their roots. That wasn't a given. Both artists have shown themselves to be exceedingly broad-minded in their interests and abilities. In their own ways, they were positioned to make good on their crossover potential. Instead, they've each made what might be a more daring and demanding choice: to reaffirm their connections to music communities known for obsessing over where their boundaries lie. Morris and Tuttle are both sharpening their artistic identities, but they're also reinventing what staying invested in their genres of origin can look and sound and feel like — how to make room for their expansions in perspective and expression while working within the confines of convention.

Tuttle had a Bay Area version of a classic bluegrass upbringing, receiving instruction from her musician dad, woodshedding alongside him and her siblings in their family band and studying myriad flatpicking guitarist elders on her way to conservatory training in the Northeast and finding peers and collaborators in Nashville. In bluegrass, attacking an instrument with vigor and virtuosity has long been regarded as a straight, white man's game, but Tuttle had a hand in the undoing of that perception and the belated recognition that other folks have always claimed the music and carried it forward. The first woman to be recognized as guitarist of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, she soon won awards for her musicianship in adjacent Americana and folk scenes too.

Tuttle's EP and album recordings of original music applied her flatpicking and composing skill to searchingly nimble, string band singer-songwriter pop. The covers project she made next, 2020's ...but I'd rather be with you and a three-song follow-up EP, didn't feel like the lockdown stop-gap that it was so much as an occasion for revealing exploration. Out of Phantogram's surreal trip-hop, she fashioned a tense guitar-vocal exchange; in Harry Styles' airily psychedelic pop, she found melodic intricacy to play with; and in her hands, FKA twigs' art-pop impressionism became a gossamery thicket of sighs over austere guitar. From there, Tuttle could've veered off in any number of folky, baroque, pop-minded or indie-leaning directions. She might still. But on Crooked Tree she's got a bluegrass band together called Golden Highway – a lineup of impressive peers, augmented on the album by revered predecessors – and a set of dashingly virtuosic songs that's contemporary in presentation but squarely in the lineage.

Morris was a prodigy, too, in the world of Texas showcases and roadhouses, where she auditioned for slots and tested her mettle alongside seasoned, gigging adults. "My Church" and "80s Mercedes," the early hits she alludes to in "Circles Around This Town," arrived as revelations in Nashville — songs savvy enough to seem in step with casually R&B-accented, millennial movements in pop. They helped her gain a foothold even in a country format whose programming practices and double standards for how performers conduct themselves have been radically constricting to women, especially those of color, a reality that she would digest and decry over time. She drove home the extent of her pop chops with her vocal performance on the 2018 hit "The Middle," scaling its hook with agility and earthy, blazing crescendos that none of the other big-name singers already enlisted by the EDM producer Zedd could quite deliver. Then, Morris nearly cracked the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 with a mid-tempo banger of her own, "The Bones," a confident survey of relational stability.

Compared with most projects she's done during her major-label tenure — with the exception of splitting the difference between rootsy flourishes and mainstream gloss in the supergroup The Highwomen — Morris' latest release represents a mindful regrounding. The album is country-pop executed with near-masterly moderation from a singer-songwriter's particularized vantage point. There are moments of countrified cheekiness on Humble Quest, like "I Can't Love You Anymore," with its faint twang and feigned annoyance at being overcome with affection, but Morris' tone is a reflective one. A couple of her new songs are as much in the Bonnie Raitt tradition of fully grown pop expression as they are shaped by Nashville craft: sumptuous ballads savoring what it's like to yield to intimacy that once seemed unlikely. Another song about enduring partnership, "Background Music," doubles as something far more rare: a serenely accepting survey of a future where Morris' music, and her country artist husband Ryan Hurd's catalog too, will inevitably fade from relevance.

Since busbee, the producer who helped her define her sound, died of cancer a few years back – she ponders both his impact and absence sentimentally in the ballad "What Would This World Do?" — Morris had to select another collaborator. Instead of a Nashville stalwart she chose "The Bones" producer Greg Kurstin, to whom she assigned landmark albums from Miranda Lambert, Eric Church and Lee Ann Womack as essential listening. Morris wasn't looking for the robust, R&B-accented grooves of her popular past recordings. She and Kurstin largely remove beat-making from the equation, in favor of muted, molten rhythms and understated, acoustic country instrumentation that open up ample space for her to elongate her shrewd, luxuriant vocal phrasing. She's shown all along that she can create dramatic moments with her full-bodied singing, but this is belting of an especially supple and attuned kind.

Considering that Morris titled her breakthrough album Hero, she's drawn quite the contrast by calling this one Humble Quest. Her proximity to pop hasn't only been a matter of vocal and production style. On social media and in interviews and speeches — most notably one she gave at the 2020 CMA Awards redirecting attention to the visionary country and roots striving of perpetually marginalized Black women like Linda Martell, Rissi Palmer and Mickey Guyton — Morris frequently speaks her mind with a brashness expected of pop stars.

That isn't how it's been done in 21st-century country music; preserving the appearance of big-tent unity in the genre has required a certain controversy-averse, media-trained diplomacy — and also a flattening, or flat-out denial, of how multiple facets of identity factor into the distribution of success and the dominant narratives. Scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom put a fine point on that in a recent Twitter thread: "Mainstream country music is full of all kinds of deviance that is only considered okay because it's white."

Contemporary country's idea of humility is bound up in the genre's downhome cultural status; the fear of being looked down on by the outside world becomes a point of pride. The fear of being permanently blacklisted for political speech, a fate that befell The Chicks and one that Taylor Swift studiously avoided up until she left the format and its codes behind, is a whole other matter. So it's a striking departure to hear Morris sing about pursuing humility of a different kind. Her slow-burning title track conveys the melancholy awareness that that's a draining, ongoing effort. She takes her time reexamining her awakenings, how she started calling out sexism, racism and other realities that she found troubling, and she's willing to sit with a most uncomfortable question: "The line between fulfilled and full of myself / I'm tryin' to find it, and I might need some help / Standing up was enough of a battle / How do I not cast a shadow?" Retreating from her community or slipping into polite passivity might've presented simpler solutions, but Morris is choosing a harder route of wrestling through the tension between taking up space and making space.

In matters of difference and diversity, Tuttle has her own quiet way of engaging in social discourse. She's identified herself as an ally when playing Bluegrass Pride events, made known that she lives with alopecia areata — an autoimmune disease that caused her total hair loss in childhood — by being photographed without a wig and reinterpreted the Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow" as a metaphor for intersectional feminism in a music video featuring fellow artists holding up handwritten signs with pithy definitions of equality.

Elements of Tuttle's progressive worldview serve as organic, defining features of the backdrop on Crooked Tree. As solidified as certain bluegrass song forms and tropes can seem, her approach to them isn't just knowledgeable; she subtly shifts them towards the particulars of her experience and concerns. When she laments the loss of the old ways in "San Francisco Blues" and "Flatland Girl," she deftly folds in anxieties about the destabilizing effects of gentrification and migration. Her take on the gothic murder ballad, that folk, old-time and bluegrass staple, avoids the traditional, chilling ending; no woman is slain in "The River Knows," a stunning piece of storytelling. Tuttle instead inhabits the role of a vigilant woman, defending herself against a man whose rejection has festered into violent resentment. "Thought he was a friend indeed," she sighs meaningfully, "but a woman can't trust a man in need." The mood is lighter during the frisky shuffle "Side Saddle" and the galloping "She'll Change"; both show underestimated women restlessly overachieving. The title track, which she made a point of removing her wig to perform during her Nashville release show, is a parable of coming to embrace the difference for which she was ridiculed in her youth as part of her truth.

Tuttle chose to co-produce her album with dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, a paragon both of fidelity to foundational bluegrass as founder of Earls of Leicester and its elegant, cosmopolitan evolutions, playing with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Tuttle's guitar playing, with its sly sense of rhythm and incisive, articulate lines, is a central protagonist in arrangements that steer the possibilities of a bluegrass band toward cinematic sophistication. The poised clarity of her singing suggests that she's taken in everything around her, from her immediate surroundings out to distant horizons, before plotting where she'll stand.

That sense of discernment is something that Tuttle and Morris share at this juncture. Between the bold-faced extremes of either breaking with or being bound to their genres, they've picked out more rewarding options: to mature in their musical attachments by applying accumulated insight and new priorities. And it makes a difference that they're staying engaged with country and bluegrass communities that have been simultaneously, though in vastly different ways, contending with crises of identity and ownership from their margins to their centers. For Morris and Tuttle to distance themselves would be to dim their influence.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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