Bluegrass musicians attain polish — and sweet world-weariness — despite being under 18
Talent declares itself anywhere. In a crowded family room in Palo Alto's Midtown neighborhood, the air is electrified by the playing of five bluegrass musicians preparing for an upcoming concert.
Four members of the band are young — so young that the lightning-quick fingers of Michael Tuttle, age 11, look impossibly assured as they race up and down the neck of his mandolin. Molly Tuttle, 17, whose voice already expresses a sweet world-weariness, leaps confidently across octaves in a kind of yodel that characterizes songs such as "White Freightliner," crisply snapping her guitar strings. Sullivan Tuttle, 14, drapes himself comfortably over his guitar, coaxing out sounds that are measured and mellow despite their speed.
"We do it fast," said their father Jack Tuttle, who is primarily a fiddler, but also plays and teaches banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass. "The words in bluegrass are always so sad, but not the tempos."
For the past 30 years, Tuttle has taught 80 students a week at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, while more recently keeping a proud eye on his own family band, which already holds its own in practically any company of bluegrass players.
AJ (Aissa) Lee performs as a special guest with The Tuttles. At just 12, she produces a surprisingly rich, polished vocal tone. She pushes out notes with intense concentration and fluency, her pure pitch undisturbed by the occasional melismatic finale.
Despite the maturity of the singing, the melancholy themes of bluegrass — romance, love, loss and faith — sound oddly poignant coming from the mouths of such youthful musicians in songs like "He Ain't Never Done Me Nothin' But Good," and "Red, Red Rose."
By contrast, "Needles and Pins" (which Jack Tuttle calls "not really bluegrass, more Western swing") revels in its nervy energy. Jack Tuttle's composition "Gypsy Palo Alto" incorporates difficult solos for each member of the band, allowing the instruments to emerge and shine in a series of jazz riffs. AJ's composition "Catch the Keet" — written in response to the loss of her parakeets — produces a fluttery sense of acceleration.
Molly, who started guitar at age 8 and banjo at 10, plays Bob Dylan's "Been on a Mail Train" in double time. She also plays guitar in clawhammer style (essentially like a banjo). In singing, Molly has learned to avoid the head voice and to switch registers in the characteristic bluegrass style that propels the voice in something resembling a yodel.
"The vocal cords slap together — I had to practice a lot," Molly said.
In addition to her father's instruction, Molly had a blues guitar teacher, and now has an instructor for old-time banjo (a subtler style that is becoming trendy again, according to Jack) as well as a voice coach.
Jack's teaching style resembles osmosis more than instruction, at least with his own children, according to their mother, Maureen Tuttle. "Every family has something a mom or dad loves, and Jack loves music. Every day he would sit and play," she said of the family's early years.
The immersion goes back farther to Jack's father, who heard Hank Williams and was inspired to form his own band with Jack and his sister in rural Illinois, where Jack grew up.
Jack Tuttle's quiet prompts carry their authority lightly. "You sound a little tentative," he remarks to Sullivan at one point. And despite his high standards, the children don't express any concern about feeling pressured. Michael said he practices for half an hour a day, Sullivan for one hour.
To help the children achieve the pace required for bluegrass music, Jack said he took advantage of their natural competitiveness.
"I had them working on speed to the point where they were pretty raggedy, and then cleaned it up afterwards," he said. "They are extremely efficient with practicing, because any problems immediately get fixed."
Listening is another important way to learn, Jack says, and Molly especially likes to imitate bluegrass singers Hazel Dickens and Gillian Welch.
AJ Lee, who also plays with a group called OMGG (Obviously Minor Guys and a Girl) in Contra Costa County, started learning ukulele at the age of 3 from her Irish mother, Betsy Riger, who involved her in rhythm games and gave her little pitch exercises. AJ then moved on to mandolin, and later learned some fiddle and guitar. At 5, she was performing at stage events held by Kids on Bluegrass, a program of the California Bluegrass Association.
At the association's annual Father's Day Festival, which draws thousands of people to Grass Valley, the Lees and the Tuttles got acquainted, and Jack ultimately asked AJ to sing with them.
"The first time I ever heard AJ sing, she must have been about 7," he said. "She was good, very musical and had a lot of potential. Next year, she'd progressed so far: She had one of the most remarkable voices I'd heard for that age group. She's growing into that voice all the time."
AJ and Molly have already performed in Nashville, at the International Bluegrass Association's showcase for kids. "When AJ opened her mouth and started singing, it stopped them cold," Jack Tuttle recalled. The Tuttles, too, have drawn attention, both on stage and with a YouTube video of them playing "El Cumbanchero" that has drawn more than a million and a quarter hits since it went up in 2006.
Because AJ lives with her family in Tracy, Jack sends MP3 files that he records of the Tuttles' own playing, and AJ practices harmonizing with them at home. He also sends the tablatures (musical notations) of new pieces over the Internet.
AJ incorporates her practice time into her day, often while doing other things, she said. "Walking around, I just think of a song and sing it off the top of my head. At home, I'll just let it all go, even yell it — that helps me memorize it. I practice maybe 10 times a day."
Since 2004, the Mountain View-based nonprofit Redwood Bluegrass Associates has offered an annual showcase for Jack Tuttle's students, including musicians who have became well-known names in bluegrass. These include Brittany Haas, who's now in the band Crooked Still; Angelica Grim, currently on the bluegrass charts with her first release; and the banjo player Frankie Nagle. But at an upcoming concert on Jan. 23, the Tuttles and AJ will be the main event.
"They're far beyond 'pretty good for kids,'" said Peter Thompson of Redwood Bluegrass Associates. "They are, simply, flat-out great, destined to be major forces in bluegrass. We're lucky to be able to experience them in concert before they get really famous."
What: The Tuttles and AJ Lee perform in the Redwood Bluegrass Associates concert series
Where: First Presbyterian Church, 1667 Miramonte Ave., Mountain View
When: Saturday, Jan. 23. Jamming starts at 5 p.m.; doors open at 7; the show begins at 8.
Cost: Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door (half-price for teenagers and free for children ages 12 and under).
Info: Go to www.rba.org or call 650-691-9982. Jack and Molly Tuttle are also scheduled to perform Feb. 20 at the Lucie Stern Theatre at 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. They'll be opening for bluegrass singer and fiddler Laurie Lewis as part of an 8 p.m. benefit for the Juana Briones Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association; call 650-493-2131 or e-mail email@example.com for more.