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Sierra Hull is a Lyric favorite. The bluegrass singer, mandolinist and guitar player first played the Grand Ole Opry when Alison Krauss called her to the stage. She was 11. Now in her late 20s, she has played the White House, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center and was the first bluegrass musician to receive a Presidential Scholarship to the Berklee College of Music.
Hull was raised in Tennessee and began playing the mandolin when she was 8. She put out a self-released album when she was 10 and began jamming with other musicians in her family. By the time she was 10, she was entering local talent contests and her parents took her to bluegrass festivals. During the International Bluegrass Music Association festival, Rounder Records discovered her and she was mentored by Krauss, who knew something about being a child prodigy. On Nov. 21, 2011, Hull and Krauss, along with Dan Tyminski, performed in the White House.
As she entered her twenties, Hull found she wanted more than the music she made as a teen. She talked to Krauss, the mentor who was now a confidante. She advised Hull to talk to banjo-master Béla Fleck. “Sierra lives in the border area where new ideas mix to create hybrids and sometimes brand new directions,” he said. “Her own voice was quietly telling her something that was hard to hear over all the advice she was getting.”
Fleck asked her to play her new songs for him without accompaniment other than her voice and the mandolin. “Even when I was fronting a band, I’d always been an ensemble player,” Hull said. “To do something by myself made me rethink everything.”
The result was the 2016 album Weighted Mind, produced by Fleck. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Album. To the mandolin and her voice, she added bass player Ethan Jodziewicz. Fleck is heard, as are Krauss, Abigail Washburn and Rhiannon Giddens. While the album certainly pays homage to its bluegrass roots, this music is Hull. She wrote 11 of the 12 songs and arranged the 12th. “She plays the mandolin with a degree of refined elegance and freedom that few have achieved,” said Fleck. “And now her vocals and songwriting have matured to the level of her virtuosity.”
For Hull, it’s about being herself. “The moment you start to be yourself, there’s an honesty about that, that people connect with,” Hull said. “This album feels like the story of my early twenties, of that searching. Now it feels like everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”
Hull continues to grow as an artist and a storyteller. She has produced 25 Trips, a nod to a momentous year in her life, when she married fellow bluegrass musician Justin Moses and released Weighted Mind. “There’s a lot of push-and pull on this record, where in some moments I feel like everything’s happening so fast and I wish I could slow it down so that I can really enjoy it,” she said. “Then there are also times where I’m looking forward to the day when the craziness has died down a bit and life’s calmer.”
The new album continues the musical journey Hull began with Weighted Mind, a body of work that built on Hull’s bluegrass roots and ventured into entirely new terrain. While its predecessor had a sparse and stripped down palette, 25 Trips embodies a far more intricate sound: an effect achieved with the help of peers like guitarist Mike Seal, bassist Ethan Jodziewicz, violinist Alex Hargreaves and fiddler Christian Sedelmyer. Along with integrating electric instrumentation and percussion into her material for the first time, Hull dreamed up the album’s eclectic textures by embracing free-flowing process that often gave way to lightning-in-a bottle improvisation.
“There were songs that we created from the ground up, where I’d go and play by myself,” she said. “From there we’d bring in other musicians and add more and more layers,” she said. “It was really wonderful to work that way, where we started from a place of mystery and then just let the song show us what it wanted or needed to become. One of the things that I enjoyed most about making this record was getting to show the wide variety of music I love. I don’t really know what category the album falls into, but I also think that matters less and less. What matters to me is trusting myself to be who I am, and just putting my voice and my heart out there in the most sincere way that I possibly can.”
The result is an artist at peace with herself and her talent, making the best music of her life.