About The Artist Awards Program:
The Whippoorwill Arts FreshGrass Awards celebrate the musical accomplishments, extraordinary talent, community spirit and creative soul of two artists.
MASTER ARTIST AND EMERGING ARTIST AWARD RECIPIENTS WILL RECEIVE:
★ $25,000 unrestricted grant
★ Featured performance Summer 2018 for a Whippoorwill Arts FreshGrass event in Bay Area of Northern California
★ Featured performance Fall 2018 Fresh Grass Music Festival at MassMOCA, North Adams, MA
2018 Award Winners
Keith Little’s first instrument was the ukulele. But he was born to play guitar, almost literally. “My mother bought a 00-18 Martin as a gift for my father, shortly before I was born,” says the veteran bluegrass and country multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter. “I wasn’t allowed to play it until I could hold it in my lap and reach the nut, but my father would often play the guitar with me in his lap and the guitar in front of me. I remember placing my ear on the upper shoulder of the guitar and playing open strings with my right hand. It sounded so good—hearing the initial tone of the open strings, and listening to the harmonic overtones ring out. I was hooked, and couldn’t wait to play the thing by myself.”
Not only did Keith learn to play guitar, but also he picked up 5-string banjo, and later added mandolin and fiddle to his musical arsenal. By the time he was 13 years old, in the fall of 1969, he landed his first professional gig, playing banjo with local musicians around a campfire for a post-trail-ride party in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. “I earned $25, a mountain of cash to me at the time,” he recalls. Ten years later, in 1979, after a decade of developing his skills on acoustic guitar and banjo, and as a harmony singer, Little committed to becoming a professional musician. “I built a very humble studio business,” he says, “while working in country dance bands in the Central Valley and taking every gig I could manage.”
Now, with 40 years in the rear-view mirror, Little’s career resume is nothing less than brilliant. He has recorded as a side musician on nearly 100 albums—with Frank Wakefield, Claire Lynch, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Nell Robinson, and others—and was featured on the Chieftains Grammy-winning Another Country (RCA, 1992) and Dolly Parton’s Grammy- and IBMA-winning The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill, 1999). He has performed and/or toured with the Vern Williams Band, Grant Street String Band, High Country, Rose Maddox, the Country Gentlemen, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Lonesome Standard Time, the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, and a duo with Jim Nunally. In 2000, he recorded his first solo album, Distant Land to Roam (Copper Creek Records), and he leads his own group, the LittleBand. His compositions have been recorded by Claire Lynch, Tim O’Brien, the Country Gentlemen, Longview, Crystal Gayle, Vern Williams, the Whites, and others.
Today, Keith and his wife, Phyllis, live near Garden Valley, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a few hours north of the Gold Country town of Sonora, where his musical journey began in the Little family household. “Living where we did isolated us from popular culture to a large degree,” Keith recalls, “so my early music education came strictly from recordings, the radio, and church music.” And from his father and mother. “Both of my parents were second-generation Californians (at the very least), and as such knew a wide variety of ‘folk’ songs introduced in the public school system,” Keith explains. “My father was a fine amateur home musician, playing guitar, banjo, harmonica, Autoharp, and mountain dulcimer, and he loved to sing and play old-time country music. He taught me how to hear chord changes and sing harmony before I actually started playing the ukulele.
“My mother was also a wonderful musician, and lover of the arts,” Keith adds. “She taught piano out of the house after she retired as a kindergarten teacher, and was beloved by her students. She showed me the chords and melody to the first song I learned on the ukulele, and was always supportive of our musical interests.”
Keith’s father fell under the spell of bluegrass after seeing the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde. He fixed up an old banjo and taught himself to play. Following the listening recommendations in a Pete Seeger instruction book, he bought the family’s first stereo record player and ordered three albums from a music store in Auburn: Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt & Scruggs, Mountain Song Favorites by the Stanley Brothers, and Bluegrass Ramble by Bill Monroe. “I remember what I was wearing, and what the room looked like when the needle went down on ‘Ground Speed,’ the first song on the A side of Foggy Mountain Banjo,” Keith says. “It was a life changing moment for sure. I began buying records with money I earned from odd jobs, adding to the collection, and eventually took my turn at the banjo.”
It was only two years after that $25 campfire job that Keith landed his first official bluegrass band gig—at the Sierra Nevada House in Coloma—with bassist Steve Townsend, and Del Williams and Larry Park, the sons of Vern Williams and Ray Park, aka Vern and Ray. After attending junior college in Sacramento in the early 1970s, and answering calls for recording session work, Keith moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1978 and “began playing with everyone I could” while attending the University of California, Berkeley. When he decided to play music for living, Keith dove into learning fiddle and mandolin. “Being a singer/multi-instrumentalist, with a demo tape of my material, eventually led to my first full-time salaried gig with the Country Gentlemen in 1986.”
Reflecting back on some of the lasting influences on his approach to music and performing, Keith points first to the way his father was able to “effectively communicate the ‘fun factor’ in playing music.” And he singles out a “life-changing experience” working with Rose Maddox in a country band at Sharkey’s Casino in Gardnerville, Nevada, in 1982. “I’d been working on improving my less-than-mediocre stagecraft skills, and was in total awe of her performing ability,” he explains. “She was keenly sensitive to the energy coming back from the audience, which was a totally new concept for me. I was absolutely amazed at her ability to captivate the crowd each time the curtain went up, take them on a 35-minute ride, and leave them on their feet when the curtain went down. She could sense when they were bored, as well as when they were tired, and set the tempos and songs accordingly. Rose worked without a set list and didn’t play an instrument onstage, yet she never took her eyes off the crowd. This was critical. It was the first time I remember actually gathering the courage to look out into the audience in the same manner. ‘There’s no secret to being an entertainer,’ she told me, ‘you simply have to be yourself, and don’t be afraid to let it show.’ OK then, I thought, perhaps I can do it too.”
Now a music industry veteran of more than four decades—a dedicated instructor at many of the top national and international acoustic music workshops and camps, a professional member of the IBMA, and an honorary lifetime member of the California Bluegrass Association—Keith takes special pleasure in leading his own group, the LittleBand, with Michael Witcher (dobro and vocals), Josh Tharp (banjo and vocals), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin and vocals), Blaine Sprouse (fiddle), and Rick Dugan (string bass). “I’d have to say that ‘setting the tone of a performance’ is a favorite part of leading the band,” he says, “not musical tone necessarily, but rather tone as it relates to the flavor of the time we spend together. Even if it’s only a 50-minute set, I like for the weight and relative intelligence of each song to come through like a good story. The end result should be entertaining, uplifting, challenging, and honest. This most easily happens by mixing the special talents of each player, providing a platform for them to flavor the dish, and then encouraging the audience to join with us. It’s more on the model of a chef (or a designated driver), and can’t be fully explained, I believe.”
And if he ever feels like he needs to stoke his own fires of inspiration? “It’s easy: I listen to the 1950 Flatt & Scruggs Mercury recording of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Once through normally does the trick, but I can seldom stop there. It’s the recorded antidote for creative musical stagnation, in my opinion, especially when you realize that the band cut four other classics that same day, all once through, no overdubs, Usually just thinking about that record sends me happily back to the woodshed.”
—Derk Richardson, Oakland, California-based music journalist and radio programmer, KPFA 94.1 FM
On September 27, 2017, Molly Tuttle made music history. Having been nominated for three International Bluegrass Music Awards, including Emerging Artist and Female Vocalist of the Year, she became the first woman to win IBMA Guitar Player of the Year (having also been the first woman ever nominated in that category). Her remarkable achievement came before she’d spent a quarter century on the planet. The 24-year-old Northern California native had already been performing on stage since was 11 years old. She recorded her first album, The Old Apple Tree with her father Jack Tuttle, at age 13; she has appeared on A Prairie Home Companion and at San Francisco’s prestigious Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and RockyGrass festivals; and she’s been featured on the covers of Flatpicking Guitar and Acoustic Guitar magazines. And she is no stranger to awards: Molly took first place in the General category of the Chris Austin General Songwriting Competition at Merlefest 2012, and she won a 2016 IBMA Momentum Award in the instrumentalist category. Further evidence that Molly’s star has risen is her fall 2017 signing to Compass Records for whom she will record her first full-length album, the follow-up to her 2017 self-released EP Rise, which featured contributions by Darrell Scott, the Milk Carton Kids, Kathy Kallick, and Nathaniel Smith.
Although her solo recordings are recent developments, Molly has appeared on a host of CDs—with her father, Jack, on Introducing the Tuttles with AJ Lee and Endless Ocean; with The Goodbye Girls on Going to Boston; with Mile Rocks on Mile Rocks and Friends; with John Mailander on Molly Tuttle and John Mailander and Snowy Side of the Mountain; with AJ Lee on AJ Lee; with Korby Lenker on Thousand Springs; with Bobby Osborne on Original; and with Billy Strings on Turmoil & Tinfoil.
Molly, now living in Nashville, has not been thrown off-kilter by the skyrocketing arc of her young career. “Nashville is full of the best musicians in the world,” she says, “so being around that keeps me feeling grounded and humble. Other things that keep me grounded when I come home after a lot of touring are riding my bike around east Nashville, connecting and advocating for the Alopecia community, which I’ve done a bit in the past year, and working on new music. Keeping the focus on music and being creative really helps keep everything else in perspective.”
Molly’s focus on music has humble beginnings. She first played in public with her father at farmers’ markets and pizza parlors in the San Francisco Bay Area. “That’s how I learned to perform,” she says. “Slowly I started doing it more and more, and it became something that I loved and wanted to pursue as a career.” That guitar would be her primary instrument was clear to her early on. “I always loved the sound of the guitar,” she says, “and the fact that I could accompany myself easily when I sang. Something about the guitar always felt really comfortable but also compelling to me. The guitar is very accessible for people of all levels to play, but it gets more complex and mysterious the deeper you get.”
Her first influence on guitar was her father, a music teacher steeped in bluegrass. “My dad learned from listening to people like Clarence White and Tony Rice, so I think he passed along a lot of that vocabulary to me,” she explains. “He always stressed coming up with ideas that haven’t been done before and would invent interesting licks or versions of tunes and teach them to me.” As she became more familiar with other players locally, and increased her exposure to acoustic guitarists in general, Molly found additional sources of inspiration. “[Bay Area musician] Michael Stadler was the one who showed me that you could play clawhammer on the guitar,” she says. “Before meeting him I played clawhammer banjo but didn’t know it could transfer to the guitar and sound musical.”
Molly’s meticulous playing reflects her impeccable taste, as well. “I love Dave Rawlings,” she says, “because he has such a unique sound, and his use of dissonance is really compelling to me. David Grier was also a huge influence for me. I really admire his use of crosspicking and the way he fills out chord tones around his lead playing. He has some of the most interesting ideas and an amazing groove when he plays, which I’ve tried to emulate to some extent in my playing.”
It was while the Berklee College of Music in Boston, from which she graduated in 2014 with an Artist Diploma in Guitar Performance, that Molly realized it was not common for a young woman to step out as a lead voice on her chosen instrument. “I never had another woman in any of my guitar classes,” she told Jewly Hight for NPR Music’s World Café in 2017. “Guitar is, I think, one of the most gendered instruments, for some reason.”
But while her skills as a guitarist have won her unprecedented acclaim, Molly is emerging as a triple threat—along the lines of someone like Richard Thompson—as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Writing in American Songwriter magazine, Paul Zollo observed that Molly “plays astoundingly fleet flatpicking guitar like Chet Atkins on superdrive” and “sings with the gentle authority of Gillian Welch.” As evidenced by the seven songs on her EP, Rise, and the fact that her song “Lightning in a Jar” has garnered over 1 million plays on Spotify, Molly’s songwriting is coming into prominence, as well.
“When I was a teenager I became more focused on singing and writing songs than playing guitar,” she says, “and that is still my main focus when I’m working on music. To me the vocals and the songwriting are what I really connect to when I listen to my favorite artists. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were big inspirations to me. I listened to both of them a lot when I was starting to write songs.” Asked her idea of a perfect song, she replies, “One that comes to me is Dylan’s ‘Simple Twist of Fate.’”
As she becomes the first recipient of the Whippoorwill Arts/Freshgrass Emerging Artist Award, Molly is writing the songs for her Compass Records album debut. “It’s still pretty vague,” she says, “but I want to explore a bit and go in a new direction with it. The songs I’ve been writing are all over the place, as far as style goes, and I’ve been doing a lot of co-writing, which has helped me grow as a writer and find new territory.”
Even as she expresses her deep admiration for such musicians as Alison Krauss—“someone who I think has always stayed true to her own music and sound”—and Gillian Welch—“another who has never done anything that doesn’t sound completely authentic to who she is as an artist”— Molly Tuttle is becoming a role model in her own right. As she said in her IBMA award acceptance speech, “I want to be an inspiration to other women to play lead guitar.” Leading the Molly Tuttle Band (with banjo player Wes Corbett, mandolinist Joe K. Walsh, and bassist and Hasee Ciaccio), teaching at the Targhee Music Camp and the Nashville Flatpick Camp, and on AcousticGuitar.com, and racking up honors, she is well on her to bringing others along with her.
—Derk Richardson, Oakland, California-based music journalist and radio programmer, KPFA 94.1 FM
Whippoorwill Arts · Hilary Perkins · firstname.lastname@example.org