Sierra Hull Makes Mandolin Magic
August 19, 2014
By Carol Cowan
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.”
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.”
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