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Labor of lust: A talk with Grammy winner, banjo phenom Kyle Tuttle

Kyle Tuttle will play the Asheville Music Hall Feb. 16. Jay Strausser photo Kyle Tuttle will play the Asheville Music Hall Feb. 16. Jay Strausser photo

When it comes to bluegrass banjo, you’d be hard-pressed to find as vivacious and voracious a picker-n-grinner than Kyle Tuttle. 

“One major thing that sets bluegrass music apart from other genres is that many of the listeners are pickers themselves — bluegrass music sounds even better on the front porch than it does on a big stage,” Tuttle said. “And there’s a canon of songs and tunes that everyone knows and plays together, on and off stage — bluegrass fans are truly a part of the music.”

Hailing from the backwoods of Cumming, Georgia, Tuttle was, at least initially, a punk rocker and metal-head, one where the six-string electric guitar was his obsession from an early age. First playing guitar at age five, his grandparents handed him a banjo on his 17th birthday.

“By then, I had gotten into bluegrass on guitar and was picking with buddies,” the 37-year-old said. “But, the banjo really just lit a fire under me. By [age] 21, I had put down the guitar and considered myself a banjo player.”

With a hardscrabble DIY ethos and “never surrender” attitude from his teenage punk days, Tuttle parlayed those sentiments into the sonic scope of the “high, lonesome sound.”

“I’ve always done things my own way, not usually on the beaten path. No need for the big machine,” Tuttle said. “That’s what I loved about music from the beginning — the idea you can create music and then create a whole aesthetic around that music, too. Once I’ve decided how I’m going to do a thing, good luck changing my mind. And I do believe that has been to my advantage professionally.”

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Beyond starting and touring with his own bands throughout the early chapters of his musical odyssey, Tuttle eventually landed in Nashville, Tennessee, some 12 years ago. Bouncing around the live music circuit from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Tuttle also held a three-year stint in the famed Jeff Austin Band.

“The community of artists [in Nashville] is not only the best in the business, but it’s actually very supportive and inviting,” Tuttle said. “Also, you’re not going to get the last-minute call to play the [Grand Ole] Opry if you don’t live in Nashville.” 

And through that vast landscape of musicians in Music City, Tuttle crossed paths with the likes of guitar virtuoso Molly Tuttle (no relation). Molly soon brought Kyle into the fold of her renowned band Golden Highway — a rocket ship of sound and presence, this fusion of bluegrass, Americana and indie-folk.

To note, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway recently won the Grammy Award for “Best Bluegrass Album,” the group’s second in that category in as many years. The ensemble also received the 2023 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) honors for “Album of the Year” and “Song of the Year.”

“Time has felt like a whirlwind lately. [It] has been a wild ride since our very first [Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway] show two years ago,” Kyle said. “I think we knew from the start this band would be something special, But, I could never have known that it would be like this. It feels very much like family and, in a lot of ways, it feels like we are just getting started.”

When not hitting the road extensively throughout the year with Golden Highway, Tuttle has managed to carve out some time for his own melodic endeavors. What has resulted his new album, “Labor of Lust,” which falls under the banner of the Kyle Tuttle Band.

A snapshot of where Tuttle currently is artistically, it spotlights not only his bluegrass and folk talents, but also his genuine sense of self — this heart-on-your-sleeve, devil-may-care musician simply wandering this big, crazy ole world in search of human interaction through the catalyst of his trusty five-string banjo.

“It’s the connection and shared human experience that keeps me getting back in the van, plane or bus. Each show is another chance to share an important chunk of time with other human beings,” Tuttle said. “Often, it’s joyous, but sometimes it’s sorrowful. It’s really both all the time. Somebody at the show is on top of the world. Somebody else is going through something really tough in their life. A love of music has brought all three of us there — for a few hours we raise our voices together.”

And through his continued journey — of the banjo, the open road and life itself — Tuttle can’t help but reflect on his time with the late, great Jeff Austin. The former Yonder Mountain String band founder and lead singer, Austin passed away tragically in 2019. But, not before Tuttle was able to witness and immerse himself in the legend and lore that was Jeff Austin.

“[Jeff] was the ultimate showman. He could get a crowd so amped up, [this] ‘take-no-prisoners’ energy about the way he played,” Tuttle said. “I try hard to carry that energy with me onstage now, every time. I learned about connecting to a crowd and creating an experience together. Each night is its own event and unique [in itself] — just because a song went one way last night, doesn’t mean it has to go that way tonight.”

Want to go?

A rising bluegrass/indie-folk act, the Kyle Tuttle Band will hit the stage at 11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, at the Asheville Music Hall.

An official Billy Strings after-party, doors open at 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person. Ages 21 and up.

For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to ashevillemusichall.com.

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