Sierra Hull: ‘Having spent time up in Boston, the whole experience of the last few years has given me confidence in a lot of areas, and it’s been a good chance to be influenced by a lot of different things and kind of figure out what I really love and what I really want to do. And at the same time it’s left me still searching for it.’

Almost Grown: The Education of Sierra Hull

Nearing graduation from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Byrdstown, Tennessee’s Sierra Hull is growing up artistically as well with the release of Daybreak, as torchy a bluegrass album as you’re likely to find right now. She’s come a long way, baby.

By David McGee

Boston, Massachusetts, is many miles and a world away from Byrdstown, Tennessee. Urban and urbane, home to the Red Sox and, essentially, Harvard University, the oldest higher learning institution in the U.S., established in 1636 across the Charles River in Cambridge, Boston had a population of 645,169 as of July 2009, an increase of 9.5 percent over 2000 figures. Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston; so was Edgar Allan Poe. At Fenway Park, Ted Williams turned the act of hitting a thrown baseball into high art; at the old Boston Garden, the Boston Celtics ruled the NBA roost, winning 11 championships in 13 years from 1957 to 1969, including an unprecedented and unequaled eight in a row from 1959-1966. You know Boston. Everybody knows Boston. Ask Ben Affleck.


The county seat of Pickett County, situated on the Highland Rim due east of beautiful Dale Hollow Lake, one of Tennessee’s most popular recreational spots, Byrdstown had a 2009 population of 865, a 4.2 percent decrease since 2000, according to the latest figures available. Estimated per capita income in 2009 was $11,739; median household income in 2009 was $19,516, slightly up from 2000’s $19,375 median income, with median income for the whole of Tennessee being $41,725. The percentage of residents living in poverty in 2009 was 46.7 percent. Although only 31.37 percent of its residents were affiliated with a religious congregation in 2009, an overwhelming 52 percent of those attended a Southern Baptist Church. The estimated median house or condo value in 2009 soared to $91,889 from 2000’s $54,400. The most popular last name among deceased individuals is Garrett, which at 48 far outpaces Flowers, in second place at 32, just as James, at 48, outdistances John, at 25, for most popular first names among deceased individuals (Mary, the most popular first name among females, is fourth on the list, with 23; she is immediately followed by Martha, with 16; the only other female name in the Top 10 is Ruby, ninth with 11—well, there is a Willie in there, which could be male or female). The most popular occupation for males is “Other production occupations including supervisors” (16 percent), with assemblers and fabricators second at eight percent. Among females, the most popular occupation is “Textile, apparel, and furnishings workers” at 12 percent, with cooks and food preparation workers second at seven percent. (All stats courtesy City-Data.com)

Nowhere in the list of popular female occupations in Byrdstown is “teenage bluegrass mandolin phenom.” There is but one, so far as we know—Sierra Hull, now 19 years old, hailed far and wide, way beyond the city limits of Byrdstown, not only for her mandolin artistry—which borders on breathtaking—but also for her evocative, silky voice, redolent as it is of Alison Krauss’s, who championed an even younger Sierra and was the spectral if not literal presence behind the Pride of Byrdstown’s impressive 2008 Rounder Record debut, Secrets, produced by Krauss’s Union Station banjo master, Ron Block.

serena(Byrdstown in fact has produced another female musician of note, the mysterious folk singer-songwriter Serena Matthews, about whom this is known: she is older than Sierra; is a college graduate; works, or once worked, at a digital photo lab in Nashville [in March of 2009 she posted a note on her website saying she had lost her job “and I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, career wise and otherwise” but in October of the same year described herself as “a stay at home mom”]; is giving away all her music for free at iLike.com; and has a YouTube channel, a Facebook page and a Flickr site, the latter of which includes a photo from the back porch of her parents’ house in Byrdstown. Once signed to the indie but now defunct Lost Cat Records, for which she cut two albums, Matthews, singing in a searching, haunting, little girl’s voice with the slightest of a blues drawl and accompanying herself with rudimentary, spare, acoustic guitar atmospherics, may well be the female Nick Drake. Afflicted with “pretty bad insomnia,” she prefers late night-early morning hours for writing, but says her songs are “too dark for sharing. My voice is peculiar, my guitar skills are mediocre, at best. And my songs are too consistently sad for the radio. This leaves me saying ‘Hmmmm.’ I feel the world deeply. Sometimes it feels like it’s too dark for me to exist here, but then I look at my daughter and I know that I must, for she did not ask to be here, and I will not leave her alone. My parents never left me alone. I love them for that, and for ten thousand other things. All I really want from anyone is a little bit of relating. Otherwise this world is very hard to swallow.”)

Serena Matthews, from Byrdstown, TN: ‘Moon Hanging Low’

hullA Boston-Byrdstown connection has been made, thanks to the esteemed Berklee College of Music awarding Ms. Hull one of its elite Presidential scholarships—only five are doled out each year--after recruiting her throughout her high school years (it’s not only skilled athletes who get noticed). As much as Sierra had to adjust to life in the big city, Berklee had to adjust to having one if its students being an established, in-demand concert artist who was traveling—a lot. By her own estimate, she missed some 40 percent of her first Berklee semester due to touring commitments. In an exclusive interview with TheBluegrassSpecial.com this past May, she described her schedule as “crazy,” and added that it posed difficulties not only with her schoolwork, but with her assimilation into the student body as a whole: “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.”

Things worked out: Sierra tapered off on her touring to focus on school, and the school in turn designed a degree program for her (the Artist Program) that made accommodations for her concert commitments and provided private instruction in some courses so she could keep up academically. The upshot? Barring any unforeseen developments, Sierra will graduate next month with her Performance Diploma. Just in time to turn up the gas on promoting her second Rounder album, the newly released Daybreak, produced by another Union Station stalwart, bass player Barry Bales.

Daybreak: Bluegrass of the Bluest Sort

daybreakFascinated, and more than a little amused, by bluegrass’s penchant for sad stories recounting romantic follies (“That’s bluegrass for ya!” she says with a laugh), Ms. Hull crafts on Daybreak what is nigh on to a bluegrass torch album. That is doesn’t quite get there is in part her fault, if you will: her two upbeat instrumentals—the speed-picked dialogue she engages in with guitarist Bryan Sutton on “Bombshell” and her high-steppin’ antics with Sutton, Cory Walker on banjo, Randy Kohrs on dobro and Stuart Duncan on fiddle on “Chasin’ Skies”—are too bright and energizing to qualify as late-night, lonely ruminations of the broken-hearted mulling a solitary fate.

In fact, though, Daybreak is bluegrass of the bluest sort. Five of these heartbreakers are Sierra’s own songs (Secrets contained but two Hull originals, one an instrumental, the other, “Pretend,” a genuine tune for the lovelorn that Sierra chalked to be in “a sappy mood” the day she wrote it, as documented in our cover story of May 2008), including “All Because of You,” the third of an opening trifecta salvo of unambiguous heartbreakers opening the album. In contrast to the bluegrass tradition of opening albums with barnburning numbers, Daybreak kicks off with a mellow Kevin McClung tune, “Easy Coe, Easy Go,” that impresses on several fronts, not the least being Sierra’s beautifully nuanced vocal blending the ache of lost love with a sanguine acceptance of its finality and the need to move on. Its lyrics, though not Hull’s own, set the tone and make a statement all at once when she asserts unequivocally “I’m not a child anymore” in the opening lyric, a sentiment followed closely by the revelation of how her “first real heartbreak” had left her undone, “but I’m not afraid anymore.” Many of the ensuing songs describe similar experiences of getting burned by love but remaining open to its possibilities again nonetheless. This possibly accounts for two of her originals being set to upbeat tempos: “Tell Me Tomorrow” boasts a lively, sprinting rhythm, even though its lyric speaks of an anticipated breakup, and “What Do You Say?” sets a lover’s ultimatum—either stay or go but don’t keep waffling about your feelings—to a toe tapping beat. Offsetting these sunny moments are songs such as “Daybreak,” a Hull original, sweet and melancholy all at once and centered on a star-crossed romance in which Hull sings of the test each new sunrise brings—“It’s all I can do to make it through the day/after daybreak”—in a soft, low arrangement keyed by Stuart Duncan’s longing fiddle lines, with Ronnie Bowman adding a soothing harmony vocal to an arrangement that could easily be transposed into a saloon song, piano and vocal only, suitable for Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours. Kevin McClung’s “Wouldn’t Matter to Me,” one of the most beautiful songs Hull has recorded in her nascent career, like “Daybreak” evokes nature in describing an abject lover’s plight--“Wish I was a summer breeze, blowin’ through the live oak trees/goin’ when and where I please/not a care at all/or ever as it grows, know just where it wants to go/wash away the tears that flow/mend a broken heart”—and metaphorically musing on how easy it would be to handle heartbreak if you were somebody or something else, impervious to pain.

On the other hand, Shawn Lane’s irresistible, loping country love song, “I’ll Always Be Waiting For You,” cool and gently flowing as a mountain stream, strikes a positive note. Singing with captivating warmth while also fashioning a delicate mandolin solo along the way, Sierra proclaims enduring commitment to a partner enduring hard times away from his beloved, leading to a soaring, elevating chorus: “when you’re far away from me, darlin’/and it seems you don’t know what to do/when it seems like no one cares about you/I’ll always be waiting for you.” And in a bit of a surprise on a couple of levels, Sierra dips her toe into western swing with her own “Best Buy,” a funny, flirtatious and frankly cynical take on an eager suitor’s dubious intentions.

Sierra Hull at the Summer Breeze concert, Norman, OK, September 19, 2010, with Ron Block on guitar. ‘The Hard Way,’ from her debut album, Secrets.

The question begs an answer, though: Why so much heartbreak from one so young?

“I wasn’t setting out to make any kind of a sad record or anything,” Sierra, who clearly found the question humorous, noted in a phone interview en route to a show in late February. “Sometimes, just naturally, when you listen to a lot of music, it’s easier for me to want to relate to songs like that. For me, I can’t necessarily write a song about something as cool as ‘Little Cabin Home on the Hill,’ even though that’s a great song. But I’ve never experienced that. I’m sure whoever wrote that could experience that and sing it truthfully. For me, it’s not like I’ve experienced a lot of heartbreak here, y’know. I’m not quite old enough to have that happen. But that feels more typical, more something I could imagine what it would feel like in a lot of cases. A lot of times you set out to write a song just because you want to write a good song, not necessarily because it’s a personal experience or anything. Like the first song, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go,’ isn’t a song that I wrote, but I feel it says so many things I can really relate to that it’s a song I could have wrote myself. There are a lot of things in that song that I enjoy singing and of course I just love the melody. There’s a lot of stuff on the record that was maybe just a fun song to play; something like ‘What Do You Say,’ y’know, just your typical fun bluegrass song. It was something that I wrote and didn’t really imagine I would ever do anything with. But it seemed to fit the theme of the record and similarly with ‘Best Buy,’ I didn’t think it was something I would ever record, but it ended up working and ended up being a fun song and found its way onto the record for that reason as well.”

Nevertheless, she confirms “Easy Come, Easy Go” was chosen as the leadoff track because it says something she felt important for personal reasons. “When we started cutting it I thought it had to be the first track on the record. It has some heartache in it, but the overall mood of the song I think is a very happy feeling of moving forward. I thought that would be a perfect first song for the record.”

Making the video for Daybreak’s first track, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go,’ written by Kevin McClung ‘It has some heartache in it, but the overall mood of the song I think is a very happy feeling of moving forward.’

As for the “Best Buy” western swing wrinkle, Ms. Hull says its style evolved while she was writing it—“that’s the feel it took on”—and she went with the spirit. “I didn’t set out to write any sort of swing song, and I haven’t been a long time playing swing, but it just seemed to really fit what the song was and that’s how we envisioned doing it--having Bryan play archtop guitar and just going the whole way, making it really swingy. I’d done a little demo of it and sent it to Barry; it had that feel to it a little bit but it’s pretty swinging, so we decided to dig in and really swing it.” (laughs)

At the same time, she doesn’t profess any deep immersion in western swing, either through masters past (Bob Wills) or present (Asleep at the Wheel, Hot Club of Cowtown), but rather a subconscious bent towards it as a result of her own listening habits. “I’ve heard a lot of it and I think it’s awesome. A lot of people have asked me about this, saying, ‘I didn’t realize you were such a big fan of swing.’ Well, I am. I think sometimes you just hear so much that you have things inside of you that sort of come out but you don’t necessarily know where they come from. So it just felt right to do it that way. That song is one of my favorites to play and I’m really excited about playing it live. And I think it will be fun.”

In our 2009 interview centered on her Berklee experience, Ms. Hull revealed that she had joined in with an informal gypsy jazz group and was enjoying the challenge it presented as well as the exposure to a new style she wasn’t so familiar with when she arrived on campus. “Best Buy” would seem at least to be an outgrowth of that activity, but she is quick to note most of her original songs for Daybreak having been completed before the start of her first Berklee semester. Her advanced education did come in handy, however, when arranging the songs and learning to trust her own instincts.

“My time there at Berklee really influenced the decisions we made as far as arranging the songs, and as far as just giving me the confidence to step out, that I don’t have to stick myself in a box. I feel like the more I’ve been exposed to a lot of these different types of music I really see that I don’t have to limit myself to just doing this or just doing that. If we want to do a swing song, let’s do it! Why not? So I think more than anything it’s given me the confidence to step out and do what was already there or that I already loved. It really helped me discover what those things are.”

The Lessons of Berklee

‘…from the time I first set foot there up to now I’ve really learned so much as a result of just getting to study with so many amazing people and being around so many talented musicians constantly. You thrive in that environment; you can’t help but learn and grow.’ (Photo: Ted Lehmann)

Being in the midst of a school full of gifted musicians working in different disciplines has challenged Ms. Hull, herself a gifted instrumentalist, to work even harder at what she does. “Sometimes I still go, Oh my gosh, I have so much to learn. There’s so much I don’t know. I’m sure everybody feels that way at times. I definitely know from the time I first set foot there up to now I’ve really learned so much as a result of just getting to study with so many amazing people and being around so many talented musicians constantly. You thrive in that environment; you can’t help but learn and grow. Even though you may not realize it at first, I think it does come out as you go along, just as a result of being there, whether you’ve been trying to focus on a certain thing or not, I think you can’t help but grow and learn being around that.”

On Secrets, most every critic commented on the beauty of Ms. Hull’s singing, comparing it favorably Alison Krauss’s crystalline tone, and with Daybreak those comparisons are likely to multiply and be more effusive. Vocally Daybreak is a work of sustained inspiration—nuanced, knowing and deeply felt, a complete emotional immersion in the texts that makes a direct hit on a listener’s heart. In this publication’s abovementioned 2008 cover story centered on Secrets, Ms. Hull expressed the hope that in coming years “people will start thinking of me not just as a mandolin player that sings, but as a singer that also plays mandolin.” She feels she’s getting there, that Daybreak is a one big step of many to come, with her performances reflecting her personal growth post-Secrets. Vocal lessons have taught her more about the nuts and bolts of singing, but those studies came after Daybreak was recorded. If she sounds more enmeshed in the storylines than she did two years ago, chalk it up to her having lived a lot more life in the past couple of years.

Sierra Hull on the Berklee Experience

“More than anything I think it’s just getting older and realizing that I relate more to singing now than I ever have,” she explains. “Of course I have been taking vocal lessons the past two semesters, but again, the record had already been recorded before I started doing any vocal study. But you know I already feel, even in the time from making the record until now, that I’ve learned a lot and hopefully can apply that on the next record and on. And a lot of it is confidence. It really takes a lot of confidence to be a great singer, and I still lack that sometimes. But it’s something I’m definitely starting to feel a little better about and realizing how much I really want to be a good singer. I still feel that way, still want to make that one of my top priorities as a musician.”

Which naturally brings up the subject of working with Barry Bales as a producer. Ron Block, who produced her debut, does appear on two cuts on Daybreak, not on banjo but on guitar, including on the powerful gospel number “Land of the Living,” by Mary Ann Ballard. Schedule conflicts prevented Block from producing Ms. Hull again, but in Bales she found the right person at the right time with the right temperament to facilitate her growth as an artist, especially vocally.

“It’s always so important to have a producer that understands that it is your record and it should be something we both are really happy with,” she says. “I feel like Barry really took the ideas that I had already and made them better than I could have done on my own, definitely. It’s so great to have somebody in the studio with you there, too, that can push you a little bit harder. Especially as a singer he really pushed me to give it my all, and I feel like we really worked well together, having that sort of honesty with one another about everything. Maybe I’d be in there singing and he’d say, ‘Sing out a little bit more. Sing from your toenails!’ He pushed me to get the best vocals I could, just believing we could get some really good ones. So I think having that kind of honesty, of going in, listening and saying ‘Let’s try to sing a little more open,’ really putting a focus on the vocals first and foremost, was what I needed.”

As her education proceeds out of the classroom her appreciation intensifies for the worlds Berklee showed her, and for worlds yet unseen.

“Berklee’s given me time to grow. I have been getting older, too, you know, so I think life in general changes a little bit with that. Having spent time up in Boston, the whole experience of the last few years has given me confidence in a lot of areas, and it’s been a good chance to be influenced
by a lot of different things and kind of figure out what I really love and what I really want to do. And at the same time it’s left me still searching for it. Like opening me up to so many other kinds of stuff, too. So it’s been really great.”

Home Sweet Home Awaits

byrdstown 2007
Byrdstown, TN, snowed in, 2007

Apart from looking forward to a summer of concerts and festivals, Ms. Hull is most excited about getting back home to Tennessee—not Byrdstown, mind you, but Nashville, where she will reside after graduation. Which is not to say she doesn’t dearly miss her hometown. Nashville may be where the action is, but Byrdstown is where she goes looking for her heart’s desire.

“I miss the small and wonderful place to be,” she says in her plaintive drawl. “I miss Tennessee in general. But I’m enjoying Boston. I plan on moving to Nashville in May, so I’m excited about that. I’ll definitely have to go back up and visit all my friends I’ve met at Berklee, but I do look forward to getting back home. Close enough to my family that I can just drive home when I feel like and it won’t be a whole day of flying.”

And what about Byrdstown’s annual Sierra Hull Bluegrass Festival, held every September, with this year’s being the ninth annual, assuming it takes place?

“Yeah, if they have it again I’ll be there, I’m sure,” announces the Pride of Byrdstown, with a firm addendum: “I haven’t missed one yet.”

Sierra Hull’s Daybreak is available at www.amazon.com

Sixth-grader Sierra Hull joins Alison Krauss + Union Statiobn onstage at the Grand Ole Opry on ‘Every Time You Say Goodbye’

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