When a 16 year old bluegrass prodigy enlists some of the biggest names in the business to help record her debut project for a major independent label, it’s fair to presume that we are looking at something special. Such is the case with Sierra Hull, whose upcoming project is already generating some serious buzz in the biz.
Sierra is more veteran performer than newcomer, having several years behind her performing, on top of winning mandolin and guitar competitions. She has shared the stage with Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs and Mountain Heart, and has an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry to her credit while still in high school.
Her Secrets CD is due for a May 6 release on Rounder, which features this talented teen on mandolin and vocals, with support from bluegrass heavyweights like Dan Tyminksi, Barry Bales, Ron Block, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Jim Van Cleve, and Rob Ickes. She will also be performing this week in a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York on a show put together by improvisational vocalist Bobby McFerrin, which also includes Alison Krauss and bassist Edgar Meyer.
We had a chance to discuss the new CD recently with Sierra, and found out a bit about Secrets, and the exceptional young woman it showcases. Though this new project is not her first recording, it is being viewed in the industry as her debut.
“I would definitely consider this my first ‘real’ recording. I made a CD when I was 10 years old called Angel Mountain which included all instrumentals, but I feel like I’ve really had the chance to grow up and mature as a musician and singer since that time, and would think more of this as being my debut so to speak. It’s also my first record through a label, which changes things as well.”
Folks who had seen Sierra at places like the annual IBMA or SPBGMA conventions might think of her primarily as a picker, but she takes front and center as a vocalist on Secrets.
“I sing lead on all the of the vocals, but we had some of my favorite people to sing harmony as well. Dan Tyminski, Clay Hess, and Ron Block sang with me on most the songs, and I sang harmony vocals as well on a couple cuts.”
The new project was co-produced by Hull and Ron Block – not bad for a first release.
“Working with Ron was a wonderful experience. We worked hard, but had a blast! He was so open to my ideas, and I really feel like he helped me to create and better the vision of what I really wanted the record to be like.
There are 13 tracks total on Secrets, and I feel like we really went through a good number of songs before finally choosing those to be the record. It’s really hard for me to say which songs would be my favorite, though, because I feel like I was very fortunate to have the chance to record 13 songs that I really love!
We had a bunch of songwriters send us some great material to work with. I remember hearing the song Secrets (written by Kevin McClung) for the first time and really thinking it was a great song. From Now On (Janet Beazley) is just so bluegrass that it was a blast to do. But then there are songs like Pretend – which was really amazing getting to hear a song that I’ve written really come to life with the help of some great musicians.
The Hard Way (Gordie Sampson and Rivers Rutherford) and Only My Heart (John Pennell) are two of my favorites because they are just simply beautifully written songs. And of course, Trust and Obey means a lot to me, because it’s a part of the record that I hope people will listen to and hear how much God is a part of my life and was a part of making this record.
All in all, there are probably songs I like singing better and songs I enjoy playing better on this record for different reason, but the balance of the songs as a whole – I love them all.”
We wondered what sort of reaction she gets from friends her age, and classmates at the school she attends in her home of Byrdstown, TN.
“Well.. living where I do and considering the size of my town, everyone knows that I play bluegrass music. My classmates are so supportive, and that really means a lot to me. They seem to really think it’s cool being able to do what I do, and they always laugh and ask things like, “Hey Sierra, what state are you playing in this weekend?” They definitely know a few things about bluegrass now too, which makes me a happy girl!”
Secrets features some of bluegrass music’s most accomplished performers. Tony Rice and Clay Hess are on guitar, Barry Bales and Dennis Crouch on bass, Stuart Duncan and Jim Van Cleve on fiddle, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes on resonator guitar and Ron Block and Cory Walker (who plays with Sierra in her band, Highway 111) on banjo.
There are no audio samples up yet on either Rounder or Sierra’s site, but there is one MP3 from the CD available for download from teh Gibson site. It’s for her self-penned instrumental, Hullarious, where she burns it up on both the mandolin and guitar.
“I would really think of myself as being more of a mandolin player, and I would say that most people probably know me as a mandolin player that also plays guitar some, but I really love playing guitar as well. I spend a lot of time playing both, however, and enjoy them equally in many ways.”
We’ll surely have more to say about this highly-anticipated recording between now and it’s May release.