STRINGS & SUDS SERIES: Sierra Hull
Sierra Hull grew up next door to her mother's Uncle, Junior. Junior was a self-taught musician who seemed to be playing mandolin or fiddle any time his hands had idle time. And he also had an infectious love for music. As a result, Sierra's father became inspired to delve more into bluegrass himself. It began with a Larry Sparks tape, and then he started fiddling around on mandolin, guitar, and banjo. He quickly realized Sierra was connecting to the music, and turned his energy more towards her love of music than his own.
The family bought Sierra a full-size fiddle when she turned eight, but it was just too big for her to handle. So her father walked on over to Uncle Juniors and borrowed his old bowl-back mandolin, or "Tater Bug" mandolin as Junior called it. Sierra's father figured she could at least learn where to place her fingers on the mandolin, and then they could get her another fiddle soon. When she got her smaller fiddle a few months later, she just never took to it, and kept on with the mandolin. "For some reason, I immediately fell in love with the mandolin," says Hull. "It just sounded and felt familiar, and there was an instant connection."
Hull not only instantly connected to the mandolin, she also fell in love with the openness of the bluegrass community. And the older folks at the pickin’ sessions welcomed her with open arms. "I grew up in an area where there were a lot of jam sessions and folks playing together," shared Hull. "My dad was going to those get-togethers to learn how to play, and he would let me tag along. Before you know it, those local musicians were inviting me to jam with them. Not only in the group sessions, but when they played on stage. They were just so welcoming. The bluegrass community is a beautiful thing. I think that's what made me stick with it and keep going".
Although Hull was initially the cute kid amongst the old fellas at open picks and jams, just trying to keep up, she quickly became a virtuoso. Two years after picking up a mandolin, Hull released her first album, Angel Mountain. That same year, she made her Grand Ole Opry debut. At 11, Hull played Carnegie Hall, and at 13, she got signed to Rounder Records.
With an album and a mountain of accolades already under her belt, Hull attended the Berklee College of Music on a Presidential Scholarship, taking her craft to another level. Now, nearly two decades after picking up the mandolin for the first time, she is working on her fourth album, and already looking back on a lifetime of music. "I'm still relatively young”, says Hull. “I'm 27, but I have been doing this for almost 20 years. I've gone from playing traditional bluegrass to allowing other sounds and influences into my music. As things change in your life, and you learn your instrument more, the music grows too. Whether you mean for it to or not, it's just the natural progression".
Hull's sound as evolved over the years, naturally. And as Hull grows and explores, she still retains the enthusiasm she had as a little girl, but her compositions have matured. "Well, when I started, I was playing traditional songs that I didn't write”, explains Hull. “It was a great way to get started, but the best thing about the musicians I loved was that they wrote original songs that moved and inspired people." Hull’s last album, Weighted Mind, is an excellent example of how traditional roots can hold the weight of endless influences. It also shows that Hull is mimicking her idols by creating powerful original music, in her own time, and voice. Old-time friend Alison Krauss, and other legends like Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens, all lent their voices to Weighted Mind. And the result was a realization that Hull had joined their ranks.
One of Hull’s biggest influences is jazz, even if indirectly. "I wish I could say I could play jazz," said Hull. "But I am very influenced as a listener. From Billie Holliday to Brad Mehldau. Even more so, I have been influenced by bluegrass heroes who have expanded their horizons, and incorporated jazz into their playing. Like Bela Fleck, who regularly plays with Chick Corea. I am currently touring with some musicians that have degrees in jazz. In many ways, jazz finds a way into the music I make".
Between solo dates, her duo with her husband Justin Moses, and various other collaborations, she's on the road two-thirds of the year. But Hull is currently trying to finish up a new album, which fans can hope to see next year. If you can’t wait to hear the new material, get on out and see her live.