Sierra Hull: A Child Prodigy

Scott Montgomery

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Album Review (7/26/2016)

Sierra Hull: A Child Prodigy

 

Sierra Hull is an award winning Bluegrass artist. She has millions of views on her Youtube page and hundreds of thousands of clicks on Spotify. Her unique and modern take on bluegrass has made her a significant figure in the bluegrass genre fan-base. Secrets, her first album, was released in 2008 when Sierra Hull was just sixteen years old. Secrets was co-produced by Ron Block and Alisson Krauss, and with the help of Rounder Records, the album has become a staple in today’s bluegrass.

Sierra Hull was born and raised in Byrdstown, Tennessee on September 27, 1991. She began her music career in church where she sang with her family. Her father played the guitar when she was young, and, when she was eight, her father bought her a mandolin. A year later she decided to learn how to play the instrument and was deemed a child prodigy. She started to play at local concerts and contests such as the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) festival. This is where she met Kin Irwin – the chief talent scout for Rounder Records. She was signed at the age eleven and met Alison Krauss, a Rounder Records star. Alison Krauss states, “Sierra is a remarkably talented, beautiful human being. Success could not come to a more worthy person. I adore her.” Alison Krauss mentored her, and soon after, they both were invited to play at the White House. Sierra acquired a prestigious “Presidential Scholarship” to attend Berklee College of Music. This is where her writing skills evolved and her music began to take a shape of its own, evident from the quality of her later albums. Her first albums are very traditionally bluegrass, but her newer albums are almost a different genre completely while still maintaining some of the traditional bluegrass feel. Sierra Hull received the Bluegrass Star Award on October 19, 2011. According to the founder of the award, “The Bluegrass Heritage Foundation began a tradition in 2010 of honoring bluegrass artists who do an exemplary job of advancing bluegrass music while preserving its character and heritage… Sierra Hull deserves this award because of her amazing talents, her respect for the character and heritage of traditional bluegrass music, and her effectiveness in bringing bluegrass to new audiences”

While Sierra Hull’s hard work has paid off for her, I don’t believe that Secrets is her best work. The mandolin tunes were quick and precise and they show true mastership; however, she was only sixteen when she wrote this album. Her underdeveloped voice sounds out of place throughout her music. She sings of love, loss, and hardships in her life–but only from a sixteen year olds’ eyes. It’s as if she was singing about somebody else, and while this is most likely true since she didn’t write most of the songs on the album, the authenticity in the album becomes lost.

Alison Krauss writes, “…You know, for most of it’s life bluegrass has had this stigma of being all straw hats and hay bales and not necessarily the most sophisticated form of music. Yet you can’t help responding to its honesty. It’s music that finds its way deep into your soul because it’s strings vibrating against wood and nothing else.”

While I completely agree with this statement, I believe it to be hypocritical to write songs of stories about another’s hardships in this genre. The honesty is lost, and it’s evident in Sierra Hull’s voice – however, her mandolin playing is exquisite. As I move on from her first album, I can see that she truly came into her own and her newer music is a reflection of who she really is and wants to be. She writes in an interview on Mandolincafe.com, “I’ve spent a lot of time since then really trying to work on writing new material. Mostly vocals, but some instrumentals as well. Since being at Berklee I have definitely worked on a lot of new things that I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to otherwise. It’s been great.”

I understand that this was Sierra Hull’s debut album. She wrote only three of the songs on the album, and I expected to her find her voice immature as many of the critics of the album had stated; however, I was surprised to find my foot tapping while listening to her work. I – originally – had dreaded doing this review, simply because the only time I was available to do it, I would be on vacation. I believe there is a time and a place for bluegrass in everyone’s hearts and don’t believe that it is when you’re on the beach. As a sipped my margarita and the sand between my toes seemed to warm my soul, the last thing I wanted to do was listen to bluegrass. However, Sierra Hull seems to take a different approach to the traditional bluesy feel. In fact, her voice seemed to often remind me of Disney vocals and this wasn’t awful to hear. It could be possible that nothing could bring me down in my current state of bliss, but either way, I thoroughly enjoyed her unique take on the genre.

Sierra Hull’s work in the album is very representative of the Tennessee area from which she is from. She seems to depict a life of hardships of the Appalachian region, similar to the traditional blues of the Scottish/Irish/British. She sings of a strong trust in her God and Jesus Christ. She sings about love lost with a sense of hope (as most sixteen year old girls might have). Although her songs never seem to indicate an acknowledgement of the actual region from which she is from, her lyrics seem to depict a life as an Appalachian. Many of the songs on the album seem to be specific thoughts instead of stories, as if she can’t decide if fate had brought her to something or if it was her own will. She talks of love in each one of her songs, contemplating everything about it: whether it will last forever, or whether the hard way will be the easier way. However, there is one thing she never contemplates: her faith in her religion and her strong ties toward her community. One can hear evidence of both of these attributes of Sierra in every word of her debut album.

As I’ve come to discover, bluegrass is a favorite genre among my family. Sierra Hull’s album has sparked many conversations as I discussed what I have learned so far about bluegrass; and in my knowledge of Sierra Hull’s work and the conversations, I’ve come to discover that I know little about bluegrass. While I really did enjoy Hull’s album, at the same time I was listening to it I was wishing I could listen to something else that I would enjoy more. I usually am ecstatic to listen to different types of music but while on vacation, or driving, or working on my house, or just lounging about, the bluegrass genre just doesn’t seem to cut it. Why would one give themselves a “case of the blues”? I understand that while it is much better to comprehend the history about the artist and learn their hardships through their lyrics, I don’t understand why one would always want listen to their sadness. I suppose it’s the same when angry people listen to heavy metal, or gangsters listen to underground rap, where the music seems to depict their own lives – but who’s to say that I’m sad? I also understand that while you don’t have to be a gangster to listen to rap or be angry to listen to heavy metal, it’s more often than not that I listen to heavy metal and feel angry or listen to a slow song about love lost and feel sad. Is it only when I’m sad that I can connect to this music on a spiritual level and truly see its full value, or do I have to simply look past the fact that the music is depressing? Maybe since it’s depressing and I’m not, it’s supposed to lift my spirits. It seems that even my family, as the bluegrass fanatics they claim to be, can’t seem to answer my questions but only follow it up with “If you truly understand the history behind the artist, bluegrass is much more appealing. While we can’t listen to bluegrass all-day every-day, bluegrass is still one of our favorite genres because of its power to move and for its honesty and authenticity as a genre itself.” I was hoping that through my research of Sierra Hull and being forced to listen to the genre that I would find myself totally in love with bluegrass and with my questions answered. However, now I seem to be asking more questions than I began with.

In conclusion, I’ve enjoyed learning about this genre. I’m intrigued with the entire history behind the whole genre even though I may not fully understand its potential. I specifically picked Sierra Hull for this review because I thought her voice and instrumentals would be a good stepping stone for me to learn about the genre – and it was. I enjoyed the fact that Sierra Hull’s work was inspiring rather than depressing, and I am excited to listen to her future work.

 

Citation:

“Bluegrass Star Award, by the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation.” Bluegrass Heritage Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2016.

“Sierra Hull – Secrets, Songs & Tunes – Bluegrass Unlimited.” Bluegrass Unlimited RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2016.

“Review: Sierra Hull, ‘Weighted Mind'” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 28 July 2016.

“Home.” RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2016.

Secrets – Billboard.com, retrieved 2011-03-15

 

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