Sierra Hull: ‘I do miss a lot of things about being in Tennessee in general. I love it there. But it’s been great. Boston is a fun place to live, too. It’s been good.’ Interview
Sierra Hull
She’s now an 18-year-old freshman at Berklee (where she’s playing in a Gypsy Jazz ensemble), still a touring musician, a Rounder recording artist with her second album nearly completed, and star of a new mandolin instructional DVD. Catching up with one of contemporary roots music’s best and brightest young artists.

By David McGee

It has been exactly two years since Sierra Hull’s debut album, Secrets, was released by Rounder, and exactly two years since the then-16-year-old appeared on the cover of, along with her then-17-year-old labelmate, Amanda Shaw. In January of 2009 came news, duly reported in these pages, that Ms. Hull had formed a touring band, which seemed to indicate that she had resolved an expressed ambivalence about pursuing higher education in favor of building her music career.

In fact, though, she chose both. Ms. Hull is now a freshman student at Berklee College of Music in Boston—a long, long way from her small home town of Byrdstown, TN, near the Kentucky border—and a touring musician at the same time. As much as she’s had to adjust to city life and being away from home and family, so has Berklee had to adjust to her being an in-demand concert artist, to the tune of fashioning a schedule for her that embraces both private and regular classroom work scheduled around her live dates. She’s also a member of a Gypsy Jazz ensemble that meets once a week, doing “mostly Django kind of stuff.” Berklee figured to be accommodating, given that it had begun recruiting Ms. Hull during her sophomore year in high school, and wound up giving her a full ride scholarship, the four-year Presidential Scholarship, which is offered only to five students annually and requires a live audition and proof of financial need.

Silent on record since Secrets was released, Ms. Hull is back in the game, so to speak, by way of a four-hour instructional DVD from AcuTab Publications, titled Secrets Songs & Tunes. Filmed when the artist was 16 and Secrets newly released, the instructional video shows Hull explaining not only how she does what she does on the album (in an interesting concept, its songs are mostly from Secrets, with a couple of others that she recorded earlier in her career on her own also included), but also reveals her natural gift for pedagogy. Charming and sweet as can be, Ms. Hull combines a winning personality with clear, concise instructions on her mandolin fingerings and other moves, demonstrated step by step, in slow motion, in split screen and in real time when the songs are played with a backing trio of Union Station’s Ron Block (who produced Secrets) on banjo, Kenny Smith on guitar and Zack McLamb on bass. AcuTab’s John Lawless walks Ms. Hull through each segment, and proves himself the best sort of informed guide, in that his knowledge of playing styles is obvious, but in conversing with Ms. Hull he strikes an avuncular presence, setting up the entire DVD and the individual segments with basic questions that Ms. Hull then expands on while also demonstrating her points on the mandolin. Although it’s not a biographical portrait, Secret Songs & Tunes does capture this gifted artist’s humility, humor, thoughtfulness and sincerity so thoroughly that even non-players may well enjoy spending time with these discs, or perhaps will be inspired to pick up the mandolin, although this project assumes at least some basic skill level on the part of its audience. All in all, this is one of the most interesting instructional DVDs around, and given the bountiful future looming for Sierra Hull, it’s going to be an interesting addition to the Hull archive as her career progresses. She’s so assured and at ease on camera that one is reminded of her supporting role as Catherine Graham in the Robby Benson-directed Billy Graham biopic, Billy: The Early Years, although Ms. Hull insists that her brief turn didn’t do much towards instilling more confidence in her acting abilities. “I don’t know that I even thought about that,” she says.

But there is more Sierra Hull news to report, as it turns out. Her long-awaited sophomore album is in the works, close to completion in fact.

Hearing of so much news going on in Sierra Hull’s life, we checked in with her in Boston to find out how the Berklee experience is working out for the Pride of Byrdstown, and to get the lowdown on the forthcoming album and whatever else is on her mind as her freshman year in college winds down. As she is on the DVD, so she is in this interview: charming, sweet natured, thoughtful, and plain, down-home good folks—a rare artist and a young woman of substance all at once.

To refresh our readers on some history, it’s been two years since we published the cover story, when you were a junior in high school, and then a year ago January we ran a piece about you forming your touring band. When we talked, I asked you about your plans post-high school, and you were kind of ambivalent about going on to school; obviously you really wanted to pursue music. And clearly you made a decision. I thought when I saw the news about you forming the touring band that the decision was to go on the road. But Berklee came into the picture at some point. I understand the school recruited you rather heavily, for one thing.

Sierra Hull: We still tour a lot; I’m touring more than I ever have right now. I guess when I talked to you before I had already thought about Berklee but I wasn’t sure what to do about it, really. They had contacted me when I was a sophomore in high school about possibly coming up here. So I was aware of it, but I didn’t know much about the school itself. My senior year I decided to come up here. It was February of last year and at least look around, check out the school, see what all there was to offer and if it would be something I would be willing to do. It was then that I did the audition for the scholarship. Then they contacted me a few months later saying they wanted to give me the Presidential award, which kind of sealed the deal. I had pretty much made up my mind not to do it. They first offered me a full scholarship, with full tuition, but I would have to pay living expenses, food, all that. But through that I would able to keep the scholarship for a year, but defer. I had pretty much made up my mind to defer for a year and just play heavily, because I knew we had a lot of things going on—we had a tour that was going to last about a month, and I thought, If I started, how could I be gone with this tour that’s coming up? They just assured me that they would make it work and offered me the Presidential Award and that sealed the deal. I decided to go ahead and give it a go. Nothing to lose.

The Presidential Scholarship goes to only five students a year. It’s a prestigious honor.

Sierra Hull: Yeah, I didn’t expect by any means to get it. I had pretty much told myself that would be the only way I would definitely come. But I didn’t think that was really setting up too risky of a bet, because I just didn’t think I was going to get it, you know. I was really surprised, like, Oh, sheesh. I was almost irritated when I found out I got it, because I had already made up my mind. And it took me so long to make up my mind about that, about deciding to defer, that I basically just wanted to cry, because I was like, Oh, here we go again! Got to do more thinking now!

What is your school day like? How many classes do you have a day? Do you do anything out of the ordinary during the course of a day as a Presidential Scholarship winner?

Sierra Hull: Well, really the scholarship doesn’t have anything to do with your schedule. You pretty much decide your schedule just like everybody else does, decide what you want to major in, the classes you want to take. The first semester at Berklee your classes are given to you without option. Meaning you don’t have the option of deciding what you want to do; you just have your basic things that pretty much everybody takes. And based on your audition, you get ranked at a certain number. For me, for instance, I might have a very low number in reading music, because I don’t read at all, so basically it’s zero. But I might have a high improvisation number. Where some people may be great readers but can’t really improvise. You have to do these auditions and get your ranking so they can put you in an appropriate place that will be good for your learning experience.

So anyway, I did the first semester with the schedule that was lined out for me, and probably altogether I missed I would say 40 percent of the semester; I was gone. And you know, we did a tour that was 29 days, then I was gone for about a week for IBMA, not to mention a few days here and there for traveling to festivals. And up here I had to fly to everything. Last semester I was flying so much I was here maybe three weekends, literally, the whole semester. Which was crazy, and it was really hard for me to get settled, because it was my first semester and here I was gone most of the time. I didn’t have time to meet people and hang out, because I was trying to work, and it was also very hard, because I’ve never done anything with theory and things like that. It was pretty tough, because on a lot of things I felt like the language everybody was speaking was a little over my head at the time. Still is, in spots, but it’s gotten better this semester with me being here, but everybody has been super-understanding. Luckily I didn’t fail anything for being gone that long, but there were a lot of things I just couldn’t do. Like I didn’t end up taking any finals last semester because they realized it was just too hard for my situation for me to be doing what I was doing. This semester I’ve not been touring quite as much, and during Christmas break we had plenty of time off, have been recording lately so I’ve been gone some. But still it’s a little different than being here four days and being gone three days. So we pretty much came to the decision that we needed to do something different, and they were able, they’ve been so great and actually worked out a thing with me, designed a little program that I can do, called an Artist Program, and I’ll be getting a Performance Diploma in it. Basically I had to make a list of things I wanted to study and they helped me work it into a program that I can get credits for. Which is great, because I have Mondays and Fridays off now, and my week pretty much consists of all private instruction. I have two hours a week with John McGann, who’s the mandolin guy up here, a great musician, and Matt Glaser, who’s a great musician. And Dave Hollander, I have two hours with him. I have a writing skills class that I actually sit in, which is standard notation stuff. I have that one class that I actually sit in, so it’s much easier to keep up with a class like that. The rest of the stuff, you know, if I say, “Okay, I’m going to be gone this week,” when I come back we can just easily pick up where we left off. As opposed to trying to keep up with a class that’s moving whether you’re there or not. It’s been great, really; so much better. I have an ensemble that I’m in that meets every week, the Gypsy Jazz Ensemble, which is really coo. Mostly Django kind of stuff.

As part of your schooling up there, are you doing some different kind of writing, original writing say for the Gypsy Jazz Ensemble or for any of your classes?

Sierra Hull: It’s not any writing that we’ve done. A lot of the stuff we’re doing is just cover tunes. We’re doing one song that a kid in there wrote. Most of it would be like “All The Things You Are,” a standard jazz tune, and some things like that. “Django Steps.”

So you’ve getting exposure to a lot of different kinds of music.

Sierra Hull: I have. It’s been cool. It really has. There’s so many talented people roaming around up here, it’s hard to compete.

Sierra Hull in a workshop at the Lowell Folk Festival, July 25, 2009. Song: ‘Blackberry Blossom.’

Have you been able to get out and enjoy Boston at all, the museums or the night life or the historical sites?

Sierra Hull: I’ve done some things mostly in this area, around through here where I am. I’ve been to some shows. The Cherryholmes were around the other day and I went and watched their show, the first bluegrass I’ve seen in awhile. I’ve had a chance to watch some other types of music, which has been fun. I think I’ve traveled so much, though, I still feel like I’m not even here the majority of the time. But it’s getting there.

Do you live in a dorm?

Sierra Hull: I do. An old dorm.

How do the other students treat you? You’re a bit farther along than most Berklee students.

Sierra Hull: Everybody has been awesome. They really have been so nice to me and I’ve felt really lucky. Everyone has been real supportive. The cool thing about being here is everybody’s a musician, so everybody you meet you have something in common with. Whether they’ve traveled a lot or play this type of music or that type of music, whatever their history may be, everybody can really relate to something. I feel like there’s tons of people I don’t know, but the majority of people who are here all the time pretty much know everybody. It’s still a pretty small community of people.

And how often do you talk to your folks back in Byrdstown?

Sierra Hull: I talk to my mom about every day. Dad every once in awhile. I kind of talk to him through her most of the time (laughs). He’s usually near by—you know how that is. I have other family I tend to talk to from time to time. I write letters to my Granny Hull every once in awhile.

Do you miss being home?

Sierra Hull: Oh yeah! Definitely. I miss it. I mean, I do enjoy being up here. I do miss a lot of things about being in Tennessee in general. I love it there. But it’s been great. Boston is a fun place to live, too. It’s been good.

Does anybody up there know about your famous ancestor, Cordell Hull? (note: Cordell Hull was for 11 years Secretary of State in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and a Noble Prize winner.)

Sierra Hull: I don’t know that anybody has asked me about that. No, I don’t think anybody has any questions on Cordell.

Sierra Hull & Highway 11 performing ‘Smashville,’ from the Secrets album, at Grey Fox in Oak Hill, NY, summer, 2009

Let’s talk about the DVD project. It’s an interesting concept in that it’s not just general songs you’re doing, but entirely songs on your record or that you’ve recorded earlier.

Sierra Hull: Of course, I was surprised I was even asked to make one, because I just wouldn’t have imagined ever making one that young. I don’t know. I just felt like I spent so many years watching DVDs myself, from people that I loved, that it seems weird to think anyone would even care what I have to show, you know. But I guess the concept came about because I felt like most of the time people, when they make these DVDs, they can show solos or songs from a wide variety of albums they’ve played on and things they’ve done, and just kind of pick and choose solos, or songs that they’ve recorded with this band or that band that they’ve been with for years. For me, I don’t have a big catalogue of things that people would really recognize me as playing that they might want to know how to play. I’d had a lot of people email me and ask me, after my record came out, maybe if I had tab or sheet music to this song or that song. So I felt I might as well pick out some of the songs off Secrets that people have mentioned or ones that I thought would be something good to talk about.

It’s one thing to be a player as you are, quite another to suddenly become a teacher. Had you ever before broken down your technique in the way you do song-by-song on this DVD?

Sierra Hull: Not with the songs on the record. That was the first time I had done that, which was interesting. I had spent some time while I was in high school, I gave a few lessons, but it was mostly kids who wanted to learn to play guitar. So I didn’t really have any experience much with teaching the songs off the record or really teaching mandolin, very much. It’s totally different when you’re doing a DVD like that, too, where you’re expected just to sit in front of the camera and teach, without any help form anybody or any thing. It’s almost like teaching to a wall. You don’t have anybody going, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand that.” Or, “Can you show me that part?” You just kind of have to teach and think along the lines of someone who doesn’t know these tunes, and explain them in a way that someone who hasn’t heard them before can understand. So mostly I just tried to go slow in hopes that people could pick up on what I was doing.

Did you do any actual rehearsal on each song before you filmed the segments?

Sierra Hull: No. I probably should have. (laughs) Would have made for a better DVD. I just kind of went with it.

There’s another bit of your history that I wonder if it played a part in how well you present yourself on this record. You do have a bit of a history as an actress, as we discussed two years ago—-

Sierra Hull: Oh gosh.

Did it help you at all that you had been in front of a camera before? Even though you were doing scripted lines in the Billy Graham movie and playing a role.

Sierra Hull: Uh, I don’t know that I really even thought about that. I guess, to me, those feel like two totally different things. I feel like my roles in the things I’ve done have been very small and didn’t require a lot of talking or things like that. With an instructional video, more than anything it requires you to speak well, which I don’t always do. (laughs) On something like the Billy movie, that was scripted, so I already had an idea what I was going to do. Which is kind of good, and harder in a way. And can be harder, because you’re really aiming for something, as opposed to when you don’t have something just set in stone there’s a little more room to mess up, so to speak—not really mess up, but if you do, you can turn it around a little easier.

And this DVD assumes some skill level, right? It’s not for beginners.

Sierra Hull: I would definitely say it would be most helpful to somebody who had some experience playing. It’s not going to stop and talk about how you hold your pick or the best way to get clean notes, really. It talks a little bit about how I go about doing things, how I think about building solos, and actually teaching songs. I do believe, though, and based on the emails I’ve received since it came out, I think it can be helpful to people who haven’t been playing that long, and the good thing about it is that most of it is taught really slowly. And with the camera angles they use it’s pretty easy to see what’s going on. So if somebody has some experience with playing in general, you can probably learn the tunes and learn to play them. I haven’t watched the video all the way through since it came out, but it’s taught very slowly and there’s still yet a slow version to play along with, and then there’s the band version. Plus the tablature with it is great and will help a lot of people who might not be able to see something really well on screen or might not be able to hear something.

It’s four hours on two DVDS—

Sierra Hull: That’s the reason I’ve not watched it all! (laughs)

How long did you spend actually making the DVDs?

Sierra Hull: I recorded the DVD when I was 16 and it just took a long time to come out. So it’s like part of me feels like it was a long time and I can’t remember everything that went down. Ron Block and I went at the same time to film our videos. So when he filmed his banjo DVD, I helped him on that, playing mandolin. And those same guys, Kenny and Jack, helped Ron out on his DVD, so we drove down together and spent probably three or four days working on both of them. We were able to complete both DVDs in three or four days. I know mine was finished before his. Couple days at most.

Sierra Hull & Highway 111 perform ‘From Now On,’ from the Secrets album, at the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival in Woodstown, NY, Sept. 6 2009.

You started working on a new record in March. What can you tell me about it? Who’s producing? Who are you working with?

Sierra Hull: I’m working with Barry Bales this time around, from Alison Krauss and Union Station. I originally had plans to do another record with Ron, and we were trying to figure out a time it would work. And Alison and the guys were getting ready to go back in the studio again, and Ron wanted to finish up a banjo record he’s working on. So timing-wise it wasn’t coming together very well, which was hard, and I felt like, well, being in school I better get to work on something or it will never come out, because it’s such a process. And then I got lucky enough to have all this stuff come together with school and this Artist Program, and we scheduled two to three weeks for me to be gone, not counting spring break. So I really wanted to try to get into the studio around spring break. But Ron, as much as he wanted to do it, and as much as I wanted to work with him, it wasn’t going to work out with our schedules. I just felt like, well, I really should just go out on a limb and do it anyway. Go ahead and see what my other options are. Barry emailed me and mentioned that if Ron wasn’t going to be doing it again, he would love to be considered. Then when I heard from Ron that he didn’t think he would have time to do it when we were planning on getting in the studio, so I contacted Barry again and he was all for it. We started working in December some time. It all came very quickly. We just started planning, getting songs together, booking studio time and figuring out who was going to play on what. How many days we were going to need. We went in last month and cut all the tracks, and worked for 12 days solid in March. And I’m getting ready to fly to Nashville tomorrow actually for ten more days to finish up. Then we’ll have a record, by golly!

Who is playing on the record with you?

Sierra Hull: This record we used of course the guys in my band—Clay Hess, Cory Walker, Jacob Eller and Christian Ward—and then we had guest artists. Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Randy Korrs, Ron Stewart, Ron Block on a couple, then we’ll have some harmony vocals, if everything goes as scheduled, from Ronnie Bowman and Alison Krauss and Shawn Lane. I’m excited and hopefully it will turn out good.

I wanted it to be different than the last record, and I felt like so many of my favorite musicians were on Secrets, so it was very hard to figure out what was gonna work out this time around. It was really fun. Stuart was on the last record, and it was really good having him play again. It’s hard to make a record and not want him to play on it, he’s so good. But getting to work with Bryan, Randy, some of those guys, was really fun.

What’s the material going to be?

Sierra Hull: Well, over half the record is original material. I think seven out of 12 are originals that I wrote, and one that I wrote with my dad. And two are instrumentals that I wrote, and the other five are vocals. We also have two songs from Kevin McClung, who wrote “Secrets.” He’s one of my favorite songwriters, and I did two of his songs, and did another John Pannell song, and Shawn Lane wrote a song on there as well. Then we’re doing one gospel song that’s old as the hills, because I’ve heard it in church a long time but I’m not sure who did it. We got it from the Inspirations. “Land of the Living”—we recorded that. And that’s pretty much it.

No pop covers like “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”?

Sierra Hull: (laughs) No, not on this one. But we do have some fun tunes like that on there, I feel like.

Any projected release date?

Sierra Hull: We don’t even know what the ballpark range is yet. We hope to have it done by the end of April, and I guess there’s a possibility it could come out in the fall, but then again Rounder may want to hold it for release early in the spring, depending on where it falls most appropriately. I’d love to think it can get done and we can have some copies of it by this fall some time. Whether we have copies on the road or on the website.

School is going to be out pretty soon. Does that mean you hit the road for the summer?

Sierra Hull: Yeah. We’re going to start playing quite a bit this summer. It’s gonna be fun. Last summer was very busy and lots of fun. It’s very funny; at this time of year dates roll in very quickly. We’ve added a few new things in the last few days, and hopefully we’ll have things keep rolling in and be really busy.

What about that little festival you ran in your home town? Is that still going?

Sierra Hull: It’s still going. We never ran the festival; the town ran the festival. My name was used. So they’re continuing to have it. I don’t know what all is going on with it this year. The date on it is like September 11.

Will you make an appearance?

Sierra Hull: Yeah, we’re gonna go to it. We try to go every year. Haven’t missed one yet!

Sierra Hull’s Secret Songs & Tunes instructional DVD is available at

Sierra Hull’s album, Secrets, is available at

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