Today (5/6) marks the official release of Secrets, Sierra Hull’s debut on Rounder. This sixteen year old wunderkind has been wowing audiences for at least the past six years, sitting in with leading artists like Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs and Mountain Heart, and with her own road band Highway 111.
I first saw her in person at IBMA in 2003. Sierra seemed barely big enough to hold a mandolin – in fact it nearly dwarfed her – but the then twelve year old was confidently jamming with Ronald Inscore and mando-legend Herschel Sizemore as though it was a common occurrence. She more than held her own and left everyone in the room stunned into silence, wondering how she could be that proficient at her age, and where the music would take her.
In fact, it is plainly impossible to avoid comparisons between Secrets and the early CDs from young artists like Alison Krauss and Chris Thile, both of whom started recording as teens and have gone on to establish themselves as major players in acoustic music. They both saw their debut releases on major independent labels, but neither Thile’s Leading Off nor Krauss’ Too Late To Cry saw the degree of media promotion or pent-up anticipation that Hull’s debut has garnered.
We had the chance to discuss Secrets, and Sierra-as-artist, with co-producer Ron Block, banjo and guitarist with Alison Krauss & Union Station, and one of the more thoughtful, insightful artists in our music. Our first question was about the above mentioned subject: the inevitable comparisons to Alison, and what is was like producing someone so relatively “green” in the studio.
“Sierra has had Alison to listen to, and she has paid attention to Alison’s musical sensibilities, so her ear is well developed for her age.
Early on I found Sierra to have a keen vision of her own – my job was to facilitate that. I did of course have my own ideas and input, and gave guidance throughout the process. In the end I couldn’t put ‘Produced by Ron Block’ because it was produced by both of us.”
Though Secrets is being promoted as her first release, Sierra did have one earlier CD, Angel Mountain, which came out in 2002. It was an all-instrumental project, while the new CD has her presented as a vocalist. We asked Ron if he felt it was fair to view Secrets as Sierra’s actual debut, and how a critical listener might best approach her music.
“It is a real debut, but it helps if people keep in mind that she is going to grow and change. Every aspect of what she does is only going to get better. Sometimes cd reviews talk as though an artist is what he is and has no capacity to grow or change; that idea in the mind of the reviewer is where some of the most discouraging reviews come from.
In order to truly review any art, one has to first receive it. That means in listening we can’t listen through a cd one time simply or the purpose of reviewing it; we have to first take it in, receive it in a spirit of openness, and shut off our critical faculty for at least a listen or two. Too often reviewers listen to a thing once, compare it in their minds as they listen to other things, and often force their own ideas on the work: ‘What The Recording Ought To Have Been According To Me.’ I’ve seen that happen in reviews: ‘It isn’t all bluegrass, or I wanted him to do some other kind of record; I was disappointed, and therefore I’m giving it 2 stars.’ It’s essentially like being in a conversation where the other person doesn’t really hear what you mean, but is only interested in what he wants to say about the words you’re using.
The real question for a reviewer is ‘What sort of recording were they aiming for? Did they hit the bullseye? Is it well done – well played – emotionally engaging?’ These questions can’t be answered fairly unless the recording is truly listened to – and I mean heard deeply, not at first with a reviewer’s hat on but simply in a receptive attitude of a listener. We cannot truly evaluate anything – music, paintings, or even the conversation of another – until we have fully received what is being said. I highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, which is a great boost to one’s ability to receive music, literature, and other art before evaluating it.
All that said, yes, Secrets is a real debut. But she’s sixteen and full of growth potential, so it’s good to keep in mind what the next twenty years will bring.”
Finding material is always tricky for a new artist, and we asked Ron how they collected songs for this project.
“For the most part we saw eye to eye on just about everything. There were a few songs here and there that I felt didn’t fit the record that we culled out, possibly for use on the next. Sierra did nearly all the song finding, and Alison suggested several songs as well. We did one of mine (If You Can Tame My Heart), and Jim Van Cleve wrote an instrumental (Smashville). Sierra and I sat downstairs and went through a lot of songs to get down to our final choices.”
Janet Beazley contributes From Now On, and Marshall Wilborn’s That’s All I Can Say is also included.
Sierra has two of her own compositions here as well (Pretend and Hullarious), plus one she co-wrote with her dad, Stacy (Two Winding Rails), who has also been performing on bass with Highway 111.
Her family is onboard as far as pursuing her music where it may lead is concerned, and we asked Ron what sort of factor this has been in her life?
“The support of her family has been important from day one. The whole family sat around and played together when Cody and Sierra were younger. And Sierra’s dad used to play with them a lot, always prompting them to practice and work on it. They’re still really supportive, and they’re honest with her (‘You sounded a little nervous up there’), which is one of the main sources of her ability to be honest with herself – a prerequisite to growth in any area.”
Our final question to Ron was regarding Sierra’s youth, and whether he saw the industry as being more open to younger artists these days.
“The business is rapidly changing, and I’ve heard the whole thing is moving toward downloads rather than actual CD. A record label, in spite of how the ideals of the owners may be, is a business – and as such it has to make money to survive. Thus, they’ve always got their radar on for young artists who have a lot of potential, but understandably they proceed with caution.
I love being around youth who are interested in growing as musicians. In my own musical life I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and for the young to know those pitfalls, whether in musical technique or relationally, is the best innoculation against their falling into them. Mentoring is essential in any department of life – spiritually, especially, and also emotionally, relationally, physically. We do it with our own children; why not speak life and truth into the lives of those who still have fifty or sixty years of growth coming to them?”