Bluegrass and Beyond: Sierra Hull in London
Sierra Hull has completely changed my impression of bluegrass. Having listened to her latest album Weighted Mind, attended this opening show of her UK tour and had the pleasure of talking to her beforehand, I have seen the versatility of this great music and the varied directions it can take both artist and listener. I can’t believe she’s only 25.
Growing up in Byrdstown, TN, Hull was surrounded by music; gospel, folk, and lots of bluegrass. By the age of eight she was playing mandolin and soon decided this was to be her life. Influenced by Doyle Lawson, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush and Adam Steffey, Hull soon began to get noticed by the local bluegrass community. “Local musicians invited me to play so I just had to learn to stand in front of the mic”. These appearances led to her first recording at the age of ten. Hull’s first release was a collection of “fiddle tunes” (mainly instrumentals) in response to being asked “you got a tape?”
Neither Hull nor her parents took anything for granted, they didn’t know anyone in this community. Her success is down to hard work: “I was very fortunate, we met the right people at the right time. If you get the opportunity, take it.”
After two releases on Rounder Records; Secrets and Daybreak, both rooted in traditional bluegrass, Hull felt she needed a new direction. And that was how Weighted Mind came about. “I felt people saw me as an artist based on the 16-year-old Sierra.” A lot of what she had written didn’t really fit into traditional bluegrass so while not leaving bluegrass she did feel a need to be different. Lyrically, Hull admits this new direction is a little dark. Where does this come from? She describes herself as chipper most of the time but does admit her infrequent sombre moments are more fertile sources for writing. That’s true of bluegrass generally. As she says, “there’s lots of songs about murder and people cheating on each other. There aren’t many happy songs.”
A big feature of the album is Hull’s collaborations, a testament to how she is valued by her fellow musicians. Béla Fleck produced the record and mentored Hull, particularly after she had done six tracks which hadn’t felt right so with his help they got the album and recording back up and running. Also on the record are Alison Krauss, Abigail Washburn, Rhiannon Giddens, and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz.
So how does this sound live? Hull sang with a voice that sparkled as brightly as the chandeliers hanging in the beautiful Bush Hall. She played virtuoso mandolin accompanied by Jodziewicz’s sensitivity on double bass. Together they created a sound that ranged from traditional bluegrass to Bach and Prince.
The venue was perfect for size, just about full, and the sound matched the sumptuous surroundings. Hull and Jodziewicz tuned up briefly then did three songs in succession. Opening with “Weighted Mind,” that mini set cleverly established a kind of core from which they moved around. Hull then introduced herself and Jodziewicz and after that seemed to relax into the rhythm of the full set. This ranged from the Baroque with Bach’s 12th Invention #6 in E Major to Loretta Lynn’s “You Wanna Give Me A Lift.”
Unsurprisingly, the set featured much of Weighted Mind. “Choices and Changes,” which sums up so completely the change of direction that led to this album, “and I’ll sing this song if only for myself, there’s no use tryin’ to be someone else.” The pace slowed for “Wings of the Dawn,” which swirled as the early morning mist, with lyrics similarly opaque. Others included “Birthday,” “Lullaby,” then “Stranded,” with playing as pure as a mountain stream that flowed into “Compass.”
Jodziewicz got his moment to perform solo on “Josilyn The Bugs,” and towards the end, Hull paid homage to another influence, Joan Baez, with “Queen of Hearts.” Though a performance of the highest quality, my favorite was the final song, “Black River.” That didn’t mean the show was over. In case we hadn’t been fully convinced of this duo’s versatility, their encore was Prince’s “1999.”
After that, there’s not much to say except that Sierra Hull is an exceptional musician and lyricist who I’d definitely recommend seeing. There should be plenty of opportunity; she said the next few months are pretty much full-on touring in the US, then it’s down to writing. For us over here we have to hope this tour is the success it deserves and we see her back before too long.