Artist at Large: Sierra Hull pushes the limits of her music

Sierra Hull – photo © Steve Levine

Mandolin superstar Sierra Hull says 2023 won’t match last year’s marathon touring schedule of nearly 200 appearances. She’s staying home more and hitting some old familiar spots this year. But Hull is also popping up in the company of artists far from her rich bluegrass roots. And one national promoter plans to put Hull in plenty of unique musical situations. 

Slowing down, Hull says, is critical for keeping her music fresh. 

“This year I really am taking a step back and saying no to a lot of things in order to refocus my energy toward recording, writing, and simply resting and enjoying my life beyond music too,” she said. “It’s a balance because I love the work of it all, and taking time off can give me anxiety. But I know burnout is real, and I plan to do all this for a long time.”

Her self-care includes “good coffee and food, long walks and staying in touch with family and friends back home.”

Hull may spend less time traveling in 2023, but the roads she is riding will take her to an incredible variety of destinations – some where you might expect to see her, and some where you probably would not. Among the “might expect to see her” venues:

  • An eight-show UK tour in January with guitarist Justin Moses, her husband, including three appearances at the 30th Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, Scotland;
  • A mandolin showdown with Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt at the Suwanee Springs Reunion Festival in Florida;
  • Headliner billing at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival in North Carolina;
  • Two sets at DelFest – Hull’s seventh consecutive appearance on the Cumberland, MD, stage; and
  • Bluegrass festival circuit highlights like Blue Ox in Wisconsin, Grey Fox in upstate New York, and Colorado’s venerable RockyGrass.

The other side of the ledger includes the Summer Camp Music Festival in Illinois. Jam band icons Umphrey’s McGee, moe., and Goose dominate that bill, along with Willy Nelson. Over the long July 4 weekend you’ll find Hull in California Gold Rush territory. The High Sierra Festival annually concocts a heady mixture of rock, funk, bluegrass, and jam band acts.

Then, at Los Angeles’ Arena in September, Hull joins legends like Eric Clapton, Vince Gill, and Carlos Santana, plus young blues stars like Gary Clark Jr., and Marcus King at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. This year, Clapton said, he sought out “fresh new bluegrass talent” to showcase at the primarily rock and country event.

Hull seems to have no qualms bringing her mandolin chops to Clapton’s all-star guitar lineup.

“I just want to play music I love, which will always be influenced by both modern and traditional bluegrass, and try to reach as many people as I can in the process,” Hull said. “If I can play at a festival with more mainstream artists – amazing! I would never want to limit the reach of my music or the career I am trying to build.”

High Sierra promoter Dave Margulies is familiar with Hull as a mainstay at DelFest, which he also helps produce. But Margulies encountered an interesting and different side of her when he saw Hull trading mandolin licks with funk guitarist Cory Wong at a festival in Chicago last year. 

“Oh my goodness,” he said. “It was extraordinary, extraordinary. The fact that she had the ability and the interest to jump in there and do that was very, very impressive.”

Seeing how well Hull could mix it up across genres led Margulies to sign her as “artist at large” for this year’s High Sierra Festival. That title is “like a free pass” to sit in with any other act on the bill.

“The job of the artist at large is to integrate and mix and mingle and sit in with whomever,” Margulies said. “But my job as the promoter is to present her with opportunities that exist outside of her wheelhouse.”

That’s good news for Hull. “I think if I were just doing one thing all the time, it would be hard,” she said. “The variety energizes me.”

Hull fans know that what Margulies saw in Chicago wasn’t a one-off date for her and Wong. She opened for and played with Cory and the Wongnotes on a 21-date tour last year. A video of her jamming with the band on Over the Mountain tore up the internet. One YouTube commenter called Hull “a beam of light.” Added another, “Never thought I‘d love a mandolin solo so much.”

Admirers of that collaboration might want to head to the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival next month. The Tennessee festival just announced Hull will be part of a primetime event billed as Cory Wong’s Syncopated Superjam. “There are guests from across all genres that will come together on stage for a really special once-in-a-lifetime performance,” Wong said.

Hull flashes one of her trademark grins when she recalls her work with Wong and his “full funk band with five piece horns.” And she’s not surprised that many of her fans have traveled thousands of musical miles to reach her.

“My generation cares less about genre and more about if they simply like the music or not, regardless of whether it’s called bluegrass or something else,” she said. “Most of us consume music in a modern way where we have millions of songs/genres at our fingertips in a matter of seconds, so the lines get blurred more than ever.”

Margulies, meanwhile, has two words to explain the proliferation of acoustic and bluegrass musicians in new spaces: Billy Strings.

“He’s just blown the roof off the building and opened it up to a whole new world,” Margulies said. “So now you’re seeing Billy Strings sell out arenas, and therefore inviting an entire new audience, or wider audience or broader audience or generational pull to explore this genre. 

“So cool.”

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About the Author

Steve Levine

Steve Levine is a journalist and concert photographer living in Austin, Texas, the “live music capital of the world.” When not shooting or writing about music, he’s usually covering something boring like politics or playing with the most beautiful granddaughter ever. Follow his work on Instagram at stl.images.