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Award-winning mandolinist Sierra Hull picks her own path

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Hull was just 11 when she performed with Alison Kraus at the Grand Old Opry.
  • Hull was just 11 when she performed with Alison Kraus at the Grand Old Opry.

Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville and you'll wander through glass-encased exhibits featuring guitars, shiny awards, album notes and the like from all the old-timers and top names of country such as Roseanne Cash and George Strait, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks.

Now add to that 25-year-old mandolinist and singer-songwriter Sierra Hull.

On March 17, the Hall of Fame opened its American Currents exhibit, with artifacts from artists such as Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert and Florida Georgia Line. While this isn't the first time Hull has been included in a display — in 2015 she was part of a mentor/mentee project with her producer and friend, Grammy award-winning banjoist Béla Fleck — it is her first as part of a "big stories of the year" exhibit. She contributed hand-written session notes from her 2016 album Weighted Mind and an octave mandolin she played during that album's "Black River" music video.

Hull also shared two items that represent her "biggest story," the dress she wore during the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual award show, and the award she won that night for Mandolin Player of the Year — the first woman ever to win in that category.

"I feel very proud of that. Obviously not just to win the award — that in and of itself is very special — but to get to have some area of bluegrass music where I feel like I can maybe represent women in a way that they haven't necessarily gotten to be represented yet," Hull says. "I know that there's still a lot more men out there playing bluegrass music than women of course, but it's also a really exciting time to be a woman that loves bluegrass and acoustic music."

Of course, if the Hall of Fame had waited just a few more months, it could have added one more big story for Hull — her first Grammy nomination for Folk Album of the Year.

"I think most musicians would say that it's a goal to be Grammy-nominated at some point and to have an album you work on be recognized by your peers like that ... I dreamed someday that would maybe happen, but to have it happen with this album in particular was really special because it was a nomination in the folk category. I grew up playing a lot of bluegrass. This is my first album somewhat stepping outside that, and also feeling like it's one of the most honest albums I've made."

Not that her first two albums weren't true to who she was at the time, she adds. Hull had done quite a bit of writing on those albums as well, but she'd been much younger and carried the pressure of being labeled a prodigy very early on. Her childhood "hero," and now friend, top Grammy award-winning female artist of all time Alison Kraus, called her onto the stage to play at the Grand Old Opry for the first time when Hull was 11. She signed on with Rounder Records at 13, and then went on to attend the Berklee College of Music as the first bluegrass recipient of its Presidential Scholarship.

Working on Weighted Mind was a practice in getting older and opening up in a different way. Hull recorded six tracks on her own that she wasn't happy with before Kraus recommended that she seek out Fleck. And it was Fleck who pushed her to listen less to all the outside advice and focus inward.

"I definitely think this album has helped me to be less afraid moving forward," she says. "To be able to realize that even though, yes, it's a very vulnerable album, sometimes it's just better to just trust yourself and be honest and put that out there, because even if somebody doesn't like it, you're still better off doing something that's real and truthful to yourself than try to put yourself in a box."

Her upcoming performance at Colorado College is also pushing some vulnerability buttons. Though the evening will include bluegrass selections, the main focus is a performance of "Concertino," a piece for mandolin, clarinet and piano composed by CC professor of music Ofer Ben-Amots.

"I'm very excited about that — and a little bit nervous about that," Hull says with a laugh. "I've never done anything like this before. ... It's been something I've been working on for the past couple months now, trying to learn this piece. It's like three movements, 25 minutes. For me, I don't really read music well, so that's part of why I agreed to do this. It's a good butt-kicker to get me to work."

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