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Sierra Hull: From Prodigy to Pro

2 May 2012

We got a chance to sit down with Sierra Hull at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Hull has been performing in public for a little over a decade. Almost from the start, she shared the stage with the stars of bluegrass, young and old. Stepping into the spotlight so early doesn’t seem to have loosened Hull’s attachment to her rural Southern roots. As we can see in this video portrait, even as she leaves her “child prodigy” identity behind, Hull remains very much a product of the small town in Tennessee where she first picked up the mandolin:

What struck me as I spoke with Hull was how timeless her background was. She may be part of the millennial demographic, but the childhood she describes— attending small churches, learning to play an instrument by ear—  differs very little from the one in which bluegrass pioneers like Ralph Stanley grew up decades before her. In an era where great pickers can come from Brooklyn, Switzerland and Japan, it’s worth remembering that the “true vine” of  the Cumberlands, the Bluegrass and the Smokies still produces a lot of natural talent.

Hull began playing mandolin when she was eight. She was fortunate to live near Carl Berggren, a fine mandolinist who has played with established bluegrass figures like Larry Sparks. (For proof that Berggren is no slouch, check out this video of him playing “Roanoke” with Hull, and while you’re at it, check out this clip of teacher and student horsing around on a Django Reinhardt swing tune.) Berggren gave Hull lessons, and she proved to be a very apt pupil. Within a couple of years, she was performing at bluegrass shows, and by the time she was eleven, she was sharing the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with one of her idols, Alison Krauss (check out this video of that encounter).

It’s not hard to map Hull’s biography through her music. There are the traditional bluegrass tunes of her childhood that still season her set lists, the echo of Krauss in her songwriting and vocals, and the jazz and swing influences from her recent studies at Berklee College of Music that can be heard in her sophisticated solos. In forthcoming profiles, we’ll dig deeper into both Hull’s approach to music and her exceptional technique, so don’t wander too far off.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Paul Villanova for the fine video editing on this series.

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