By Bill Conger - special for the Mandolin Cafe
July 6, 2015 - 2:30 pm
Smithville, Tenn. — Bluegrass star Sierra Hull returned to the place where it all began for her musically on July 4 to pick up only the second ever Blue Blaze Award at the 44th Annual Smithville Fiddlers' Jamboree and Crafts Festival.
The honor recognizes performers who are actively cultivating a love of bluegrass music. Darrin Vincent of Dailey & Vincent picked up the first trophy in 2014.
For Sierra, she planted her seeds at the Jamboree about 15 years ago at her first competition in bluegrass music.
"When you're young like that too, there's a sort of fearlessness that you have because you don't have anything to lose," Hull said. "You're not trying to prove anything. You're there to do what you can do. Everybody's really encouraging. When you're 9, you can play Mary Had a Little Lamb, and people are proud. They're happy just to see somebody care about playing an instrument."
For her inaugural appearance, Sierra performed Jerusalem Ridge on mandolin, but she didn't place.
"It was a good opportunity to get on stage and get my first dose of the competition like that," she remembers. "I had a blast. There was a lot of jamming going on around here. I had been playing maybe six months to a year at that point."
"Competitions can be hard for some kids, but for other kids it can be such a good motivator," Hull adds. "For me, it was definitely that. To actually lose was good for me. It was inspiring to go, 'Hey, man. These kids are good, and I want to be good. I want to go home and practice hard so I can be that good'."
Undeterred by her defeat, Sierra dug in her heels and practiced that much harder. It paid off the following year with a first place finish in guitar, but she wasn't satisfied with her second place finish in mandolin. She woodshedded some more and for her third time at the Jamboree, Sierra picked up first place in both mandolin and guitar.
Success accelerated for Sierra with the next year bringing her a record deal with Rounder Records at age 13 and her debut album release at age 16. Hull has performed at the White House, the Kennedy Center, and twice at Carnegie Hall along with touring around the nation.
"We are honored that Sierra's humble beginnings started right here on the Jamboree stage and have enjoyed watching her career explode at such a young age," said Shan Burklow Co-Director of Jamboree Marketing.
"I am so honored to be chosen for the Blue Blaze award this year," Hull said. "I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Smithville as a place where some of my fondest memories as a young musician were made."
But she thought the festival was bigger, she kidded to her mom.
"Getting to come to festivals like this seemed so big at the time," Hull recalls." I just laughed and told my mom as I was walking up, I feel like I'm 10 years old again except it seems so much bigger. Everything does when you're little like that."
When Sierra was hardly as tall as a mandolin, she knew she wanted to make music her lifelong passion. Her parents supported her, but not without a reality check from dad.
"He said you're probably good enough that if you think just want to come to festivals like this and jam and just enjoy it until you're an old woman, you've learned enough that you can do that and it can be fun for you," Sierra retells the story. "But if you really want to have a career out of this like you say you do, and that's really what you want to do with your life, you're going to have to work really hard. You play really good for a ten year old, but if you're 16 and you play like a ten year old, that's not impressive anymore. That's not keeping at the level that you should continue to grow to. As you get into the your 20s, you're going to have to be able to play like you're in your 20s and not play like a child anymore. He was really good about being real with me early on and keeping me grounded and giving me that good healthy push because he knew I loved it."
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