Choices and changes: A conversation with Sierra Hull
At just 31 years old, Sierra Hull is already a legend in the bluegrass world. With her signature songbird vocals and mandolin virtuosity, the performer has also taken home “Mandolin Player of the Year” at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards five times.
And yet, for every mountaintop Hull has summited, she’s constantly gazing across the musical landscape at other peaks to traverse and tackle. As the “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe always said, “if you can play my music, you can play anything,” so goes Hull down the rabbit hole of melodic possibility.
This past year, Hull was part of Bela Fleck’s return to the “high, lonesome sound” with his highly anticipated “My Bluegrass Heart” album. Hull was also alongside country star Sturgill Simpson with his acclaimed “Cuttin’ Grass, Vol 1 & 2” records. And, most recently, she’s been collaborating with popular funk/soul rocker Cory Wong on his nationwide tour.
Smoky Mountain News: You’re someone who’s always looking for new people to play with, to collaborate with, to record with. Why is that important as part of who you are?
Sierra Hull: I think I’ve always been a bit of a curious musician. I grew up so rooted in the bluegrass world, and I love that — that’s always going be home for me in so many ways. [Bluegrass] is an incredible foundation to be able to really get your chops, where — as a musician, singer, songwriter — you learn how to sing harmony. You learn how to really play your instrument and improvise.
And those are skillsets that lend themselves to a lot of other places, too. If you’re a curious musician, you can take those things that you’ve learned from the bluegrass community and use them in other places.
I’m a music fan, first and foremost. I just love a lot of different styles of music. So, when the opportunities come to do some kind of interesting collaboration, I’m always really inspired and excited by that.
It’s not that I’m trying to step away from my roots, necessarily. I just think, as a music fan, why not explore all the things in music that come my way?
SMN: Bill Monroe always said, “if you can play my music, you can play anything.”
SH: It’s true. It really is. In bluegrass, you learn how to play from an instrumental standpoint. There’s so much value and celebration of the instrumental side of that music. But, at the same time, you have all this great vocal music. Singing harmonies and really understanding how to sing with other people is such a huge part of it — you can take that to a lot of different places.
SMN: And what’s funny is now someone who jumps over the fence of bluegrass is considered to have a “crossover factor,” where before an artist might not make that jump in fear of losing their audience. Today, it’s more about creative fulfillment.
SH: Totally. Well, we live in a time where we have access to [all forms of] music. At our fingertips, we can pull up anything we want to listen to in seconds. The possibilities as a listener are endless, and the things to be inspired by is kind of endless, too.
I’m grateful that I was brought up in bluegrass, and so rooted in something [like that]. And you learn a lot when you’re really sort of living in one zone heavily for a long time. But, I also think it’s part of the beauty of just having all these different things, is that there’s a musician trying to create art or just as a listener where you can dabble in all these different areas — it’s so much fun.
SMN: It’s like, how could you not be inspired by all this music?
SH: I know, exactly.
SMN: The beauty is you do what you want to do, you follow the muse, which is one of the great things that’s happened with your Cory Wong collaboration — you took a leap and kicked some doors down.
SH: Well, that’s a perfect example of something that just came my way — Cory reaching out to me on Instagram saying, “Hey, do you want to play on my record?”
And, what you find is, that sometimes the most unlikely of pairings can be this magical thing. If you’re not open to those [opportunities], you won’t ever have that excitement of collaboration, and you just live in your zone the whole time.
[Now], there’s nothing wrong with that, if you find something you love and that’s what excites you. But, for me, I love trying to be open-minded for any kind of collaboration that might come my way, because I learn something new in every situation I walk into.
Being able to go play with Cory, or any of the number things that I’ve done this year, just makes me be able to come back and think about my own career and band dynamic differently — all of these things I’m learning are inspiring what I’m trying to ultimately do and create.
Want to go?
The annual Balsam Range “Art of Music” festival will take place Dec. 2-3 in the Stuart Auditorium at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
Alongside two performances by Balsam Range, other stage acts will include Sierra Hull & Justin Moses, Travelin’ McCourys, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, Shannon Wright and Adam Wright, and The Studio Dream Team Band.
For more information, a full schedule of performances/workshops, and to purchase tickets, click on balsamrangeartofmusicfestival.com.