A Cultural Ambassador Brings It Home

By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News 

Spoleto, America’s premier international performing arts festival, sounds off May 27 
(Photo provided by Shelby Means)

Even before she was born, Shelby Means was a musician. “My dad would invite guys over to jam and I was rockin’ out in my mother’s womb,” Means said. “He would play this raucous kind of guitar and I would move and when he stopped I would settle down so they knew I had something going on.” Means’ first instrument was the fiddle. At the age of 5, she placed second in Wyoming’s peewee division. In grade school, she learned viola and guitar and sang in choirs. But when she was 14 years old, she had a revelation. “I saw a woman playing the bass and I said, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s my instrument,’” Means said. “I haven’t been able to put it down since.”

Shelby has schlepped her 50 pound folding bass to over 30 countries and will appear at Spoleto on June 9 as part of Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway. When she’s not touring, Shelby lives with her husband Joel Timmons on Folly Beach. Known for his popular band Sol Driven Train, he’s currently on tour with Sam Rae. They also have two bands together, Lover’s Leap and Sally and George, so it’s a juggling act to find time together. Somehow they manage to meet in various places and play gigs together.

Meanwhile she’s a cultural ambassador, a role she finds tremendously gratifying. “It’s been one of the highlights of my musical career to travel the world, experience musical culture and share the universal language of music,” Means said. Her passion was ignited during college when she was tapped to represent American folk music at Akademicka Nitra in Slovakia.

It grew when she played with the Grammy-nominated band Della Mae and they traveled on three state department tours to Asia, the Middle East and Brazil. A trip to Pakistan where cultural differences were so startling was particularly memorable. “We were an all-girl band and performed for a few all-women colleges,” Means said. “We couldn’t speak the same language, but we could share songs together and connect through music.” Molly Tuttle was the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s guitar player of the year award. Twice actually. She’s known for her flatpicking, clawhammer and crosspicking guitar prowess. “I’ve never heard Molly Tuttle strike a single note that wasn’t completely self-assured,” said guitar master David Rawlings. 

Means added her pitch-perfect harmony and bass wizardry to Molly’s band in January and they’ve been playing to sell out crowds across the country.

“It’s really nice to be in a band run by a woman,” Means said. “It’s powerful and it’s time, especially for Bluegrass music.” Tuttle stings from encounters with egotistical male musicians such as a jam session where it was her turn to solo and the leader ”leaned right in front of me and pointed to the guy next to me and… just completely skipped over me.” But now “I have my own band, so there’s no one who’s going to make me feel like that guy did.”

Several of Tuttle’s songs are written from a woman’s perspective making her an outlier in the male dominated genre. The band’s latest recording, “Crooked Tree,” features songs about strong women and a cowgirl duet with Gillian Welch. “Everyone in the band is extremely talented and has really creative things to say on their instruments,” Means said. As the June 9 Spoleto date approaches, Means is envisioning playing for her growing local fanbase. It’s particularly gratifying for Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway to be among the stellar acts that span genres and cultures and to represent the finest of Bluegrass music. Means is anticipating the electric vibe, the beautiful darkened Cistern, the crowd reveling in live music. “The Spanish moss draping down… it feels like it’s going to be magical,” Means added. 

For the band’s information, visit mollytuttle.com or on Instagram @ shelbass. For more on the event, visit spoletousa.org

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