Sometimes the greatest gifts come from disappointment. About a dozen Christmases ago, Sierra Hull received her first string instrument from her great aunt and uncle, only to discover the full-sized fiddle was too large for her 8-year old arms. Noticing his daughter’s letdown, Sierra’s father handed her his mandolin as consolation. “Try this out while you wait for them to exchange the fiddle,” he said, explaining that the fiddle and mandolin were tuned alike. “I could show you a few things here.”
Within a year, young Sierra found herself getting handed $5 bills from bluegrass musicians to perform her mandolin at a community center in Jamestown, Tennessee, about 26 miles down the road from Byrdstown, where she grew up. A member of a family who sung gospel music on Sundays and sometimes toured local churches to sing, Hull was comfortable with performances. But getting up to sing was one thing; getting up to play the mandolin was another.
“Singing was what I just always did,” says Hull. “I never felt like it was something I wanted to work extremely hard at.” With the mandolin in her arms, however, she realized she “wanted to be really, really good at this.” At the Jamestown community center, local bluegrass bands would come to play and an audience would come to listen, either on stage or in the back jamming. “I hadn’t played very long at all,” recalls Hull of her first night performing the mandolin. “But they wanted to hear me play a tune on stage that they taught me in the back. One guy whipped out $5 and then another guy and another, and before I knew it I had $15 and was up on stage!”
Sierra Hull, a recent Berklee College of Music presidential scholar and graduate, hasn’t left the stage since. She made her Grand Ole Opry debut at age 11, cut her debut album, Secrets, at age 16, and is currently touring nationwide with music from her latest release, Daybreak, out in 2011 on Rounder Records. Along the way, Sierra Hull & Highway 111 will be heading up the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts 2011-12 “Sweet Sounds” series here on campus Friday, October 21.
Daybreak is full of heartache that Sierra hasn’t necessarily experienced herself, but has sung about all her life. She penned 7 out of the 12 songs on the album, compared to the one song in Secrets that she co-wrote with her father. “There’s a good gap between Secrets and Daybreak,” says Hull, “and between the ages of 16 and 19. A lot can change at that age in that short of a time.” Hull attributes the sad lyrics of the album to the genre rather than her own personal experience. “The thing about bluegrass in particular that’s different from other music is that a lot of times the melody can be less dark than the lyrics,” she points out.
On stage at Fairfield University, Hull expects that she and Highway 111, a contemporary bluegrass band, will switch it up a bit between songs from Daybreak and covers outside the bluegrass genre. “I’m personally open to all kinds of music,” she says. “The more you can stretch out the more you can develop as an artist, and even if you end up sticking with bluegrass, it’s only going to make you stronger when you tap out of it every now and then.”
Hull believes bluegrass as a genre is “in good shape” and “in a good place” as she finds new bands in her travels to festivals around the country. “The bluegrass bands playing today are very different than Bill Monroe who started all this,” she says. “Partly because the world is a different place than it was 50 or 60 years ago, and as life changes and things evolve, music changes too.”
What doesn’t change is Hull’s respect and love for the musicians who paved the way for her. Among her early influences were Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Alison Krause & Union Station. Krause’s voice touched Hull’s 9-year old soul with her album Forget About It, a progressive solo project that became one of Hull’s favorite albums. But it was So Long, So Wrong – by Alison Krause & Union Station – that “really steered me in a certain direction,” says Hull. “That’s it right there. That’s what I love.”
While singing and songwriting come naturally to Hull, it’s the mandolin that’s her first love and pushes her to test her boundaries as a musician. Her exceptional mandolin picking garnered her a 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) nomination for “Mandolin Player of the Year” and Sierra Hull & Highway 111 for “Emerging Artist of the Year.”
Hull shakes off labels like “bluegrass” and “child prodigy” with the self-awareness that she plays because she “just loves to play” and works hard at it because she’s driven to learn from others, but for herself. “Of course people think of me as rooted in bluegrass and traditional music,” she says, “but I want to break out. Do some other things. To eventually get to the point, as an artist, that I’m always growing and learning as much as I can and playing the best music I can. As a band we’re just beginning to figure out who we are, and I’m just beginning to figure out who I am as an artist.”
As for the fiddle? “I’m pretty terrible at it,” chuckles Hull, admitting that once she did get one the right size, “I never really took it seriously.”
- For tickets to Sierra Hull’s Quick Center concert, click here.
- Learn more about Sierra Hull & Highway 111, and opening band String Fingers.
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