Young bluegrass greats: Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle

I have despaired for years over the declining quality of rock music, and have gotten a lot of pushback about it. Of course my opinion is subjective, but there are at least ways of quantifying what people think are indices of quality, such as melodic content (which has declined in rock and pop over the years). And although I’m assaulted by the slings and arrows of those who call me an old fogey, that I’m merely saying what oldsters have been saying for years about the younger generation, and that there are groups around that are just as good as The Beatles were (yeah, right!), I tell the critics to take a number, get in line, and prepare to osculate the tuchas. 

But let’s forget about that, for I am heartened about the future of one genre of American music: bluegrass. I love bluegrass music, and there happen to be a number of young performers who are as good as, or even better than, bluegrass performers of my generation—or earlier. Two of these are acoustic guitar flat-pickers: Billy Strings (born William Apostol) and Molly Tuttle. They are just 27 years old, but, having spent several hours watching their videos, I think both are even better than the flat-picker par excellence of my generation, Doc Watson.

I’m going to show some of their work over the next week or so, but let’s start with the two of them together. Here they are at the Grey Fox festival in New York just this year. In “Sitting on Top of the World,” a folk classic written about 1930, they make it new again with their rapid tempo and especially the blues-y introduction by Strings. (Both Strings and Tuttle have great country voices as well as fantastic skills in picking). While Strings gets most of the show here, note that Tuttle is just as good as he is at picking. We’ll hear her voice later, as well as some original songs, for she also writes music and plays the mandolin.

Note, too, that the backup musicians are superb (check out the mandolin and banjo players on “Little Maggie”), which heartens me about the future of this great indigenous American music.

If this song doesn’t make you tap your feet, and get happy, you’re dead. I love the blues-y beginning, which reminds me of Gregg Allman’s solo at the end of “One Way Out”.  I could write a lot about this performance, but I’ll refrain and let the music speak. (Be sure to put it on the big screen!)

Here’s Doc Watson’s version, which is great but doesn’t move me like the rendition above:

This is the version by another great bluegrass group, Bill Monroe’s. It’s also good, but not as good as Tuttle and Strings.

Finally, just to show how good these players are, here’s another fantastic song, “Little Maggie“, from the 2018 Grey Fox festival. Their improvised duo performance in the middle of the song, beginning at 3:15 and going to the crescendo at 5:08, is absolutely stunning:

What impresses me about both of these young players is how clean their playing is: even when going at top speed—and remember, this is flat picking—they don’t miss notes or lose the tempo. We’ll hear more from them in the next few days.

28 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  2. gmaxwell447
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I can recommend another bluegrass group that is very much on the young side: Crying Uncle. We saw them live and thought they have a brilliant future.

  3. ED HESSLER
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for introducing me to this very impressive musicians (and their band).

    If 30/early 30s qualifies as young (even if it doesn’t) I hope you know Mandolin Orange.

  4. merilee
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    🐾🐾

  5. Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I have to disagree with you here. The Doc Watson version of “Sitting on Top of the World” is far superior. It preserves the contrast between the ostensibly positive message of the lyrics with the fact that it is still a relatively slow blues tune. You get the idea that while the singer is saying that he doesn’t care about his woman being gone, perhaps he’s not really being honest.

    While some of the other up-tempo versions are examples of good playing and are certainly pleasant to listen to, they lose this contrast between lyrics and music completely. Musically, they completely bury the hook that makes this song in my opinion.

    This song has been done by a huge number of artists of course. Just for fun, here’s the Cream version. The hook first appears at 00:35 and goes for about 15 seconds. As far as I’m concerned, if that hook isn’t front and center, it ain’t “Sittin …”:

    • JezGrove
      Posted January 30, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s very difficult to compare such different versions as the Tuttle/Strings and Doc Watson versions. The musicianship in the former might be more impressive (I guess detractors would say flashy), but the latter has an evocative charm of its own.

      Regardless, they are obviously a talented young (relative to me, anyway!) duo, and I can only pay my sincere respects to their undoubted talent.

    • Posted January 30, 2020 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Watson’s version is good, but to me it’s no more expressive than Strings’s; the only difference is that it’s slower. If you take that for “more sincere”, then fine. But the point is in the words themselves in this song–you must simply ask why would somebody be sitting on top of the world if their gal left them–not in how it’s sung; or at least I can’t detect an emotional difference in myself when I listen to both singers.

  6. Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    ” … such as melodic content (which has declined in rock and pop over the years).”

    Nearly all the examples of such a decline (in the previous piece) were about pop music, not rock music. I’m convinced that rock has got worse.

    • Posted January 30, 2020 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      Oops, forgot a “not”. 🙂

  7. Tom Czarny
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Billy Strings is from my hometown of Traverse City, Mi. He used to play the bar circuit up here with his then-partner mandolinist Don Julian, particularly every Thursday night at a bar called Li’l Bo’s, always to an appreciative packed house. He’ll be back in TC in mid-March playing a sold-out gig with his father at the City Opera House. Can’t wait!

    • Cheyney Rushing
      Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I love the Traverse City area!

      I first enjoyed listening to Billy Strings and Don Julian as they played in the corner of Odd Side Ales microbrewery in Grand Haven, MI a few years back.

      I’m looking forward to seeing him back at Hoxeyville again this year.

      Cheers!

  8. Posted January 30, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Sublime. However, Bluegrass does have an inherent tendency of showcasing talent so it’s hard to compare to the overly compressed, recipe driven pop of 2020. Despite most of repetitive, uninventive noise, gems like Strings and Tuttle are not as rare as people think.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 30, 2020 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      I have to agree. A brilliant talent like Strings is really amazing to see, but he doesn’t resonate very deeply with me. I’d prefer a less fluent musician who was still searching, or some old bastard with arthritic fingers but a heart of gold.

  9. neilmdunn
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I had just finished watch some Charles White vids on U tube, before I saw this post. My lucky day!

  10. GBJames
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff. This is why I don’t worry about the decline of pop music. There’s so much excellent work by young “traditional” musicians these days, we’re doing just fine.

  11. Frank Bath
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    A great couple making great music. Such playing. I loved watching Molly as she plugs into Billy on ‘Little Maggie’.

  12. chascpeterson
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff. Thanks.
    Some other great modern bands in the general genre are Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Infamous Stringdusters.

  13. norm walsh
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Nice, but I prefer Bock Owens & Roy Clark dueling banjos.

  14. craigp
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I like a bit of bluegrass too and I stumbled across Billy Strings on Youtube a few months ago in a duo he did with Tommy Emmanuel (Workin’ Man Blues, I think it was). I’m glad I did; I’ve spent many hours listening to his music since then. Billy’s father is a pretty decent guitar player too.

  15. Vaal
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Great music videos!

    I love the blues-y beginning, which reminds me of Gregg Allman’s solo at the end of “One Way Out”.

    That’s the only part I didn’t like as I loathe “The Blues.”

    But once they kicked in with the country vibe it was great (as was the other performance). Fantastic musicians, wow!

    Noticing the bass player in the first video cast my memory back to when I played electric bass in a country music group for several years. Can’t think of an easier gig for a bassist 🙂

    • GBJames
      Posted January 30, 2020 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      ”I loathe “The Blues.”

      Oy.

      • Vaal
        Posted January 31, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        I got my reasons 🙂

  16. Posted January 30, 2020 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    I liked the Doc Watson version very much. Great song.
    Did not go for the new one, got only half way through. Stated with Monroe for fifteen seconds and turned it off. Never have liked either of those two styles.

    Don’t know how to analyze that, just personal taste is all I can sat.

  17. Eric Grobler
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    My favorite Billy Strings composition:

  18. Eric Grobler
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I cannot resist posting another Billy Strings video.
    I only discovered him a month ago and he has the ability to fusion bluegrass, jazz and rock as in this live clip and his guitar playing is both inventive and precise at the same time.

  19. garman
    Posted January 30, 2020 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the recommendation! May I recommend a band much better and much more serious than their name: Trampled By Turtles. They too got chops!

    • garman
      Posted January 30, 2020 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      “Much better” than their name, that is.

  20. Joe Keller
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Great stuff.Its so fast I dont know if my ole fingers will do it.Gonna try to learn somehow


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