Sierra Hull Takes the Wheel
Many of us have grown up musically with Sierra Hull from her youngest years in Byrdstown, TN, where she was born in 1991 into a tightly knit family where music was played and enjoyed. Given a fiddle she had requested at age eight, she found it too large, prompting her dad to teach her a few chords on the mandolin. After hearing Adam Steffey on a recording, she was bitten by the bug, and worked to learn all his licks. She quickly progressed, attracting the attention of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) for a film produced for the Bluegrass Foundation’s Bluegrass in the Schools DVD called Discover Bluegrass. It features a 12-year-old Sierra Hull playing with young Ryan Holladay, probably in 2002 or 2003. Hull remembers flying to Chicago for the filming, the first time she and her father had ever been in a plane.
A year later, Hull appeared with Alison Krauss at the Grand Old Opry. The performance, her second in the hallowed auditorium, features her playing “Cluck Old Hen” with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Ken Irwin, co-founder of Rounder Records, notes the supportive smiles from Krauss along with Hull’s smile back. “Very cool .. .” he says.
Hull would soon sign her first contract with Rounder at age 13, with her first CD coming out three years later, although an earlier CD had been released without a label.
Irwin remembers one of his first impressions of Hull: “At IBMA … I went to see Sierra at the youth stage knowing that she would be there. She was in line along with another five or six bands waiting for her turn to perform. As I remember it, Sierra would chop her mandolin with the other bands and give encouragement to each band as they came off the stage. She did all this with such joy that I couldn’t imagine her not sticking with it. I loved her spirit back then and love it today. She is one of the most positive musicians we’ve met over the years and her love of the music comes across to those around her, whether it’s other musicians she’s playing with or the audience.”
To be signed by perhaps the most important label in bluegrass music at age 13 must have placed enourmous pressure on a girl not yet old enough to drive. A positive but tentative review in The New York Times soon after the release of her third album, Daybreak, with her band, Highway 111, lauded her nimble play but spoke of her thin, still maturing voice. The review asked who was she becoming. Early comments from listeners suggested her licks and approach sounded excessively like Adam Steffey’s. Yet she was busy soaking up a much wider musical repertoire, including artists like Chris Thile, Tony Rice, and Ricky Skaggs as well as bands including Blue Highway. Soon she enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston as the school’s first Presidential Scholar.
In 2009 I interviewed Hull just before a concert in Lexington, MA, at the National Heritage Museum. I wrote at that time, “While Sierra comes to Berklee with extensive performance experience in bluegrass and having had numerous successes as a featured performer on the mandolin and guitar, as well as singing her own material, she was very open in saying her grasp of theory is considerably lighter than her performance record would suggest. Her first semester has been extremely busy as she continued to fullfill her prior commitments by performing around the country on weekends and returning to school for classes during the week. This busy schedule has interfered with her capacity to adjust to the college and to Boston, so she looks forward to her second semester as a chance to settle in. She discussed her realization of the vast amount of knowledge others come to Berklee with that she hasn’t encountered before. She seemed less aware of how the experiences and perspectives she brings with her as she embarks on this new adventure will affect others on the campus. It will surely be interesting to follow Sierra Hull through the next few years as this traditionally developed bluegrass musician grows and matures in Berklee’s soup of progressive musicians and instructors.” Below is her song, “Best Buy” from the Discover CD, recorded in the WAMU Studio.
In a video interview with ReverbNation, Hull speaks about her musical development. “I grew up playing bluegrass music. I got my first Alison Krauss recording when I was nine years old.” She has built her current vocal and musical style on a foundation of bluegrass music without which she wouldn’t have become the musician she’s evolved into. “As I’ve gotten older,” she says, “I’ve been all over the map” seeking inspiration. More recently, she’s focused increasingly on the mandolin and her own voice in a solo setting. She’s transitioned from being in a band, where the mandolin plays a specific musical role, to the freedom solo work both allows and demands. “Playing solo, I found myself asking how can I figure out a way to incorporate different elements into my playing to fill out the song … to color melody lines beneath the voice … .”
Hull’s most recent album, Weighted Mind, was nominated for a 2016 Grammy Award in the Folk category, yet throughout acknowledges its bluegrass ancestry. In a video interview with Scott Goldman, vice president of the Grammy Foundation and MusicCares, recorded in February 2017, Hull explores her music’s genesis. In it, she acknowldeges the importance of Bela Fleck as producer, suggested by Alison Krauss, and her discovery of bass player Ethan Jodziewicz, pointed to by progressive bassist Edgar Meyer. The development of Weighted Mind took considerable time, as Hull found herself in a “very vulnerable place, trying to figure it all out.” While she had been composing on the guitar, Fleck suggested returning to the mandolin to explore its potential and enhance her creative process. What emerged was a solo album based on her voice with intricate new mandolin stylings augmented by Jodziewicz’s both spare and lush bass playing. Along the way, she discovered that “People develop an idea of who you are in their mind. Sometimes, people don’t ever want that to change. They aren’t willing to accept that.” An individual must “trust yourself and accept your own musical change. Have to be Me.”
We all watched Sierra Hull develop from a child prodigy into an adult, and who would expect an especially talented adult to remain the same, whether musically or in other aspects of life to which maturity brings a broader overview, understanding, and experience? But the child is mother to the adult; the background and experience inform the still-developing person and musician. How will becoming a wife, as she did earlier this year, perhaps a mother, a member of a more varied community, an international traveler, and all the other elements that build a complete person affect the music Hull makes? Will some people call it “Not bluegrass,” or will they recognize that bluegrass is fully a part of the genius still emerging from life’s cocoon into Hull’s full glory?