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Beautiful Music: Sierra Just Is

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
May 22, 2008 - 6:30 am

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

I'm just going to enjoy Sierra Hull's music and not worry about where it came from or where she's going.

Some things just are, and Sierra is, harmonious.

She's 16, she's beautiful, and she's ours—a product of the bluegrass festival and newgrass acousticat upbringing in good old Tennessee, Byrdstown to be exact. It's near the Kentucky border and a day trip away from Rosine.

Welcome spring flower to a new era.

"Go PHS Class of '09," she exclaims in the liner notes of her new Rounder release, "Secrets."

Sierra's hometown bluegrass festival carries her name. Her website is up to date, and she's already being sponsored by instrument makers.

Can she keep her feet on the ground?

"Oh absolutely!" Sierra said. "I certainly don't think of myself as being anything but simple and regular. Haha. My friends and family are all supportive of what I do, but I'm just Sierra to them and always will be hopefully."

Humility is a harmonious character trait and I have the feeling she means it.

I recently sat with my 10-year-old daughter and watched her fawn over the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana concert video she got for her birthday. It didn't look to me like Miley was really having fun going through all the choreographed show motions. But my daughter bought the act.

I wrapped up "Secrets" in my birthday gifts for her to attempt an alternative influence. Thus far it hasn't worked. I don't think she's cracked the case open. But sooner or later she will tire of the same old glitter costumes and dance steps and give it a try.

What she will hear is silky vocals and smooth mandolin, all backed by some of the finest musicians in bluegrass. Sierra's original songs are strong, and she adds a hot guitar solo just to have a little more fun.

Alison Krauss and Chris Thile influences are obvious.

"I've been heavily influenced by both Alison and Chris," Sierra said, "and they have been some of my biggest inspirations."

She'll find people commenting on message boards and blogs who will criticize this.

Not me.

I think Tony Rice borrowed a chunk of his wonderful vocal style from the progressive-band lead vocalist of his youth, John Starling. And Doc Watson was the first great modern-era flatpicker. I'll not hold that against Tony.

Krauss, also once a teenage Rounder recording artist, borrowed vocally from Claire Lynch. Hordes copied Bill Monroe.

Sierra is at the starting line and not the finish line. She's like the five-tool baseball prospect who can hit for average, hit for power, throw well, play great defense and use speed on the bases.

This is a teenager who can already sing, play, write, arrange and switch instruments.

But she's also level headed, religious and sincere. You get the feeling she could become a crossover into the pop ranks like Nickel Creek but still remember what it's like to get up all picked out on a rainy Sunday morning in the festival campground and go stand in line at the concession stand for biscuits and gravy before the long ride home.

"I have never been the type of person to want to set a limit within myself," Sierra said. "I would certainly like to do something that I can call my own in the bluegrass world, but I do want to remain a bluegrass artist. I love bluegrass music, and know that's really where my love and heart is. That's the kind of music that excites me and keeps me driven. I am open to any pathways that may come along though. And I just plan to go where my heart leads."

She's got a good idea of what makes music click for both players and listeners, too.

"Good musicians really do play from the heart," Sierra said. "A good musician really loves what he or she does, and that's one of the reasons that when you listen to those kinds of people play, you can be so easily moved by what they are doing. Playing what I feel in the moment is really important to me in many ways. I do think there is certainly a time to be disciplined with your playing and play with good taste in mind, but sometimes just letting going and playing whatever you feel at that particular moment can really be a special thing, too."

Now that sounds to me like a recipe for a Hullacious harmonious musical ride.


Quick facts for Sierra Hull fans

Website for more info:

Her mandolins: "I've recently been playing a Weber F5 Fern. It was given to me at the past IBMA and it's proven to be more of mandolin than I expected. It's the best Weber I have ever played, and the tone and volume is really great. I actually used this mandolin on a few tracks on Secrets - "From Now On," "Two Winding Rails," and "Hullarious."

"I also have an endorsement through Gibson, and played the Adam Steffey model for about 4 years prior to getting the Weber. I still play the Steffey from time to time. It's a great instrument."

Also pondering: "I really enjoy playing the guitar, but would really like to mess around with other instruments in the future. Maybe fiddle more, but definitely banjo, and maybe Dobro, too. I want to remain a mandolin and guitar player, but just for fun, I know I'll eventually try to learn some things on the banjo for sure.

College: "I'm still a little indecisive as of what I plan to do. I know without doubt that I want to play music. I'm really dying to get out there and just play as much as possible."

Final thoughts on Secrets: "I am so excited to finally have the record finished and out. It is a wonderful feeling having worked so hard on it, and then to finally see it all come together as a finished product is really rewarding. It's really exciting, but yes, somewhat scary in ways. I hope people will enjoy Secrets. I really feel like it's an album that says a lot about who I am. It can be a scary thought, but overall, I just feel so blessed and I don't worry about it at all. I know that whatever God has in store for me, that's what I want - nothing less, nothing more."

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