Sierra Hull resolved that bluegrass music would be her life’s work when she wasn’t even ten years old. Growing up in tiny Byrdstown, TN, the music was all around her, not at concert venues but in jams at the local cafe and at homes, including her own and her uncle’s next door. The precocious young talent was signed to Rounder Records and released her debut album at 16 years old. Less than ten years later, she was named the first female IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year, an honor she’s won twice in a row.
On WMOT’s new episode of The String, Sierra Hull takes time out between working on albums and touring to talk in depth about her origins. With recordings hard to find and little professional musicianship nearby, she leaned on her inspiration, her dedication and the supportive ecosystem of bluegrass music. Some highlights follow:
Sierra's upbringing was rich in music but far away from resources. Her father and family learned about bluegrass music together:
There’s no where around where I lived to actually buy music. Downloading music wasn’t a thing yet really. And we didn’t even have a computer until I was 11 or 12 anyway. So it was all the hunt for CDs and really the only place within 30 minutes or an hour of where I grew up was Wal-Mart. And at that time they actually had some bluegrass music in the stores. So it seemed like every weekend we would venture out and find a new CD that week.
Sierra’s first big live music experience was Merlefest in North Carolina. After a seven hour drive and discovering its overwhelming scale, 10-year-old Sierra was about to give up on her dream of meeting her idol Alison Krauss. Then the only somewhat older and fast-rising mandolin star Chris Thile noticed her picking one of his tunes. And he joined her:
Chris was so sweet to me. We went and found a quiet spot and he jammed with me for about two hours that day. And then he took me back stage to meet Alison.
On her experience at the Berklee College of Music, where she earned a full scholarship.
It was really interesting to be pulled maybe mentally in a bunch of different ways, as weird as that sounds, more than musically. Because I was still touring a fair amount. The whole experience just felt like this blur where I can’t say while I was there I really internalized this particular part of my musicality. I think I just had this whirlwind two year experience of head first into this whole new thing.
After two fairly straightforward bluegrass albums, Sierra struggled for a refreshed new direction. Banjo star Béla Fleck helped her find it when he agreed to produce her 2016 album Weighted Mind. He urged her to strip away the band and perform her songs nearly solo with mandolin.
It sounds silly but I’d never had anybody really say maybe just you is enough. Maybe that’s an interesting enough place to start. Not that it has to wind up there. Whereas my whole musical life was built around what’s this person going to do or what’s that person going to do? And sometimes not giving myself enough room to create and be part of that.
The String is WMOT’s conversation show about culture, media and American music, hosted by veteran music journalist Craig Havighurst. It airs on WMOT Roots Radio on Sundays at 8 am and Mondays at 9 pm. The podcast is widely available on iTunes and other podcast platforms.