.The Unusual Roots of AJ Lee’s Music Career

As Santa Cruz band AJ Lee and Blue Summit brings its tour to Moe’s, a look at Lee’s remarkable rise

On “Grass Valley,” from her new album Crooked Tree, rising Nashville star Molly Tuttle sings about the NorCal bluegrass festivals that her father—renowned bluegrass instructor Jack Tuttle—took her to when she was growing up in Palo Alto. The song is named after the city that is home to many of those festivals, including the California Bluegrass Association’s annual four-day Father’s Day Festival.

“Deadheads and tie-dye array/Dog music devotees/Like nothing I had ever heard or seen,” sings Tuttle.

One person who can relate to Tuttle’s moving tribute is Santa Cruz musician AJ Lee.

“A lot of the friends I know now, like a lot of the people I hang out with, we’ve all gone to the same bluegrass festivals,” says Lee. “Most of us grew up going to those same bluegrass festivals.”

But the connection doesn’t end there, because those festivals have created a kind of network for bluegrass players and aficionados. And through that network, Lee not only met Jack Tuttle, but also impressed him enough to wind up playing alongside Molly Tuttle in the family’s band in the late 2000s. In the somewhat awkward position of having a family band with one non-family member, Jack called it the Tuttles with AJ Lee.

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“Jack Tuttle being a music teacher, my parents got in touch with him to see if he had any openings for me—just, you know, the parents connecting,” says Lee.

Lee was eight or nine when she joined the family band, and the Tuttle kids—including Molly and her brothers Michael and Sullivan—were in their preteens and teens. When I tell Lee there is a future documentary to be made about the sheer amount of Americana talent that came out of this one young band, the members of which have racked up an incredible number of awards for their musicianship and songwriting talent over the years, she sounds a bit skeptical, but open to the idea.

“I mean, that’d be cool,” she says.

All of the group’s members moved on in the mid-2010s, but the bonds between them remained. Molly, for instance, played on Lee’s debut solo album in 2015, while Sullivan joined Lee’s current band, AJ Lee and Blue Summit.

Along with covers and some of Jack’s tunes, the Tuttles with AJ Lee played Molly’s first original songs, so few people are as qualified to chart her songwriting growth as Lee. She’s not surprised to see how Tuttle’s career has taken off.

“It was really cool seeing the progression of her songwriting,” says Lee. “But, I mean, even from the first songs that we did in the Tuttles with AJ Lee, they were fantastic songs.”

Molly, meanwhile, told me in a recent interview that she has loved seeing Lee’s solo success, as well.

“I just loved harmonizing with her,” says Molly of performing with Lee. “She was just so talented from such an early age. She was a singing prodigy. That’s how I learned to sing harmony.”

Now on different ends of the country, they see each other when they can, but their solo careers keep them busy. “Every time I see Molly, and we sing together again, it’s just sort of like back in the old days, and it just feels so natural,” says Lee. “Even though we aren’t on the same projects anymore, it just feels so nice being able to have that history.”

AJ Lee is on tour now with Blue Summit in support of their latest album, “I’ll Come Back.” The tour comes to Moe’s Alley on Friday, May 13. The Po’ Rambling Boys open the show at 9pm. Tickets for the 21+ show are $20/$25. moesalley.com.

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