Sierra Hull Makes Mandolin Magic

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Sierra Hull

The mandolin is an eight-stringed descendant of the ancient lute, and until the 1930s, was played primarily in vaudeville and classical music. But when Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass music, struck the strings of a Gibson F-5 Lloyd Loar model and sent his signature melodic solos and percussive chops out over the airwaves of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 1939, he carved a new niche for the mandolin and the high-powered players that would follow him – among them Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Sam Bush and Ronnie McCoury.

Today, younger generations of players carry on the bluegrass tradition while broadening its scope and audience – young players like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers and 22-year-old Tennessee native Sierra Hull. When she was just 16, Sierra Hull became the first woman to be nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Mandolin Player of the Year award, and she’s been nominated every year since.

Born and raised in tiny Byrdstown (population 803), about 40 miles north of Cookeville on the banks of Dale Hollow Lake, Sierra first picked up a mandolin when she was only 8 years old. Although she had always sung in church with her family, the mandolin ignited Sierra’s passion for music.

“When I started playing mandolin, that’s when music got really serious for me,” Hull says. “That’s when I started listening to a lot of different things and trying to learn. That’s really what got me going as far as what I wanted to do for a career and with my life.”

Soon she discovered the music of Alison Krauss and then Nickel Creek and Chris Thile.

“It was really a growing experience of starting almost from scratch and really not knowing that much about bluegrass,” she says. “Once we got into it, we started listening to everything we could get our hands on.”

Sierra Hull Festival

Sierra Hull Bluegrass Festival in Byrdstown

It was clear early on that Sierra’s aptitude and ability were of the child-prodigy variety. She began composing tunes at 9 and recorded her first album at 10. When she was 11, none other than her hero Krauss invited Sierra to join her in a televised appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

The next year, Sierra and her brother Cody joined Krauss and a lineup of stellar musicians on a T Bone Burnett-produced tour featuring the music of the movies O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain.

“That was one of my first experiences of traveling, being on a real tour, playing for big audiences,” Hull recalls. “When I turned 13, Keith Case, who was Alison’s long-time booking agent and booked all the shows for that tour, said, ‘Anytime you get ready to do some touring, we’d love to help you out.’ We played five or six festivals that summer. From there, it’s been just a snowball of trying to do more and more.”

In 2009, Gibson presented Hull with a Master Model F-5 mandolin, custom-built for her by master luthier David Harvey.

Rounder Records, the same label that launched Krauss to fame, signed Hull when she was 15. Her first recording, Secrets, came out the next year, followed by Daybreak three years later. While Krauss’s influence can be heard, Hull’s mellifluous voice is distinctly her own, and her intuitive and masterful mandolin playing belies her age. In fact, her music dazzles, balancing effortlessly between disciplined technique and sheer giftedness. Hull composed seven of the 12 songs on Daybreak and has lately been working on music for a new project due out in 2015.

Hull says her upcoming release will reflect the identity she is growing into as a young adult, shaped in part by the horizon-expanding experience of attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Hull was the first bluegrass musician to receive Berklee’s prestigious Presidential Scholarship.

The school opened her to a whole new world of music. “I had spent time mostly playing with older musicians and people with backgrounds similar to mine, but here I got to be around people my own age that were playing lots of different kinds of music,” she says. “There were people from over 100 different countries; as small as Berklee is, it’s really diverse. Berklee gave me the courage not to put myself in a box.”

Sierra Hull Festival


Some highlights of her career to date include touring in Japan, appearing at Carnegie Hall and the White House, and going on a 2014 U.S. State Department-sponsored tour to Micronesia and Israel.

But regardless of her touring schedule, come October every year, she’s back in Byrdstown to headline the city’s Sierra Hull Bluegrass Festival. Oct. 11, 2014, marks the 12th annual festival.

The all-day event features a certified 5K run/walk to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a Cruise-In to benefit Homes for Our Troops, and of course, lots of music.

“We’ve been trying to grow it a little bit every year. We’ve tried to improve the venue, and we built a really nice little stage for our community last year,” Byrdstown Mayor Chris Thompson says. “People in town are real proud of Sierra.”

And she’s proud of her hometown, comparing it to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.

“They’re doing good things for other people, and it’s something that the community can get behind and enjoy so I’m happy to come,” Hull says. Although she now lives in Nashville, Byrdstown is “a warm place to come home to,” she says. “I’m a Tennessee girl, and Tennessee will always be home for me.”

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    December 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm


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