A few hours before Sierra Hull was to perform on the world famous Grand Ole Opry she was standing on the stage at the 44th Annual Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree and Crafts Festival July 4. She was chosen as the second recipient of the Blue Blaze award for actively cultivating a love of bluegrass music.
The bluegrass star entered her first contest at the Jamboree, playing Jerusalem Ridge on the mandolin when she was only 9 years old.
“I didn’t place, but it was a good opportunity to get on stage and get my first dose of the competition like that,” Hull said. “I had a blast! There was a lot of jamming going on around here. I had been playing maybe six months to a year at that point.”
“When you’re young like that too, there’s a sort of fearlessness that you have because you don’t have anything to lose,” she added. “You’re not trying to prove anything. You’re there to do what you can do. Everybody’s really encouraging. When you’re 9, you can play Mary Had a Little Lamb, and people are proud. They’re happy just to see somebody care about playing an instrument.”
Determined to improve, Hull returned to the Smithville Fiddler’s Jamboree the following year and took home the top prize in the guitar competition but received second in the mandolin category.
“Competitions can be hard for some kids, but for other kids it can be such a good motivator,” Hull told Bluegrass Today.” For me, it was definitely that. To actually lose was good for me. It was inspiring to go, ‘Hey, man. These kids are good, and I want to be good. I want to go home and practice hard so I can be that good’.”
The third time was charmed as Sierra took home top trophies in guitar and mandolin her third year at the Jamboree. Since her child prodigy days, Hull has excelled in the profession. Signing a label deal with Rounder Records at age 13, she had released her first album three years later. Hull has gone on to perform at coveted venues like the White House, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center. She was the first bluegrass musician to be given the Berklee College of Music’s most prestigious award, the Presidential Scholarship.
From the young age of 8 when Sierra first picked up the mandolin, her ambition was to make it in the music business, touring and recording CDs like her heroes. Hull’s dad encouraged his daughter to follow her heart but made sure she had a healthy dose of the reality of her decision.
“He was really good about being real with me early on and keeping me grounded and giving me that good healthy push,” she says chuckling, “because he knew I loved it.”
“He said you’re probably good enough that if you think you just want to come to festivals like this and jam and just enjoy it until you’re an old woman, you’ve learned enough that you can do that and it can be fun for you, Hull recalls. “But if you really want to have a career out of this like you say you do, and that’s really what you want to do with your life, you’re going to have to work really hard. You play really good for a ten year old, but if you’re 16 and you play like a ten year old, that’s not impressive anymore. That’s not keeping at the level that you should continue to grow to. As you get into your 20s, you’re going to have to be able to play like you’re in your 20s and not play like a child anymore.”
Now, two months shy of her 24th birthday, the adult Sierra returned to her competitive roots with a feeling of nostalgia.
“Getting to come to festivals like this seemed so big at the time,” Hull remembers. “I just laughed and told my mom as I was walking up, I feel like I’m 10 years old again because it seemed so much bigger, even then, because everything does when you’re little like that.”
“I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Smithville as a place where some of my fondest memories as a young musician were made.”