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Talented Teen Plays a Mean Mandolin

Posted on 16 January 2009

Some days, Sierra Hull’s life resembles that of any average 17-year-old American teenager as she navigates the hallways of her high school, stopping by her locker to chat with friends before heading off to a classroom for a math test.

Other days, however, Sierra Hull’s life is anything but typical. That is when she assumes a different persona — one of a rising bluegrass musician jetting around the country to take part in festivals and concerts.

Sierra is quickly emerging as one of the premiere young mandolin players in the country and is in high demand these days. She has also begun singing and writing songs as well. Just last February, she signed a deal with Rounder records and in the spring, at the tender age of 16, came out with “Secrets” her first major CD. 

When not focused on finishing her senior year in her hometown of Byrdsville, Tennessee, Sierra is immersed in the adult world of the music business — performing gigs from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

This Saturday, January 17 at 7:30 p.m., Sierra Hull and her band, Highway 111, will perform in concert at the Shelter Island School. Sponsored by the Shelter Island Recreation Department, the concert is part of a bluegrass and folk music series that has brought a string of rising young musicians to the island in recent years.

Like others that have played the venue before her, Sierra comes to this concert with a vast amount of experience under her belt. She has performed at Carnegie Hall as well as on stage at the Grand Ole Opry, where she appeared (at the age of 11) alongside Alison Krauss, one of her musical heroes. In her experience, Sierra has found that audiences in this part of the world have a special appreciation for bluegrass music.

“It’s funny, I think sometimes northerners are even more into it,” she says. “They respond differently. It’s new, they don’t get to hear it as much. Every crowd has a different personality. You never know what to expect when you go out there.”

Bluegrass may be a novelty for most northerners, but it’s a way of life for many children growing up in Tennessee. In fact, for as long as she can remember, Sierra has been hearing the music around her house.

“My dad has always liked bluegrass,” explains Sierra. “We’d drive back and forth to church listening to bluegrass and gospel music. My parents also love ‘80s rock and all that. I’ve been around that too.” 

“Listening to bluegrass wasn’t any thing unusual in Tennessee,” she adds. “There are a lot of festivals in the southeast where I grew up.

It was actually Sierra’s father who first got her interested in the mandolin. When she was 8, he was the one who picked up the instrument with full intention to learn how to play it himself. But when he saw it was his young daughter who really took to it, he changed his tack. Sierra recalls her father telling her at the time that if she learned everything he knew about the mandolin, he would buy her one of her own. 

“It took me a month or so to learn everything he had learned,” says Sierra. “He hadn’t been playing very long.”

At that point, Sierra’s father put down the mandolin for good and picked up on nurturing his young daughter’s talent. He found a teacher for her and before long, she was playing in public.

“I’d been playing just a few weeks when I was asked to get on stage at this little community center where they have music,” says Sierra. “These guys started whipping out money to get me up on stage and I did it.”

“Then I started getting up a little more,” says Sierra. “It’s fun to see that — someone young jumping up on stage and giving it a shot.”

Pretty soon, Sierra started surrounding herself with music by going to bluegrass festivals to learn all she could. And while there are many adults in this world who are still trying to work out what they want to be when they grow up, Sierra Hull is one of those fortunate few who have never had any doubts.

“I realized early on, subconsciously, that I just loved to play,” says Sierra. “I knew this is just what I wanted to do. It felt really natural.”

With Sierra’s fame growing, so too has her performance schedule. She and her band, which includes guitarist Clay Hess, banjo player Cory Walker and bassist Jacob Eller, must coordinate their date books so they can make it to the many gigs, often held on the weekends.

“Every year it’s gotten busier,” says Sierra. “This will probably be one of the busiest I’ve had.”

Balancing school work with being on the road as a working musician can be a challenge. Sometimes, explains Sierra, she takes a whole week off from school to perform, but tries not to do that regularly. More often, says Sierra, she will take off school on a Friday and perform over the long weekend. 

“It just requires working hard to keep up,” she says. “I’m really having to focus to keep my grades up. We only have 200 kids in our school, and the teachers are great. They know what I do and help me so I’ll come in early to class and go over what I missed.”

Sierra is looking forward to graduating from high school in May, which will free her up to pursue music full time. Summer is likely to be packed with more concerts and festivals. But fall is another question, and right now, though she is interested in the Berkeley School of Music in Boston, she has not yet fully committed to the idea. 

“I know what I want to do,” says Sierra. “I’ve known since I was 8 — and that’s to play music in a band and travel around.”

“I would love that to be my primary focus, but I don’t want to pass up the chance to go to a great school,” she adds. “I’m still indecisive.”

Sierra Hull and Highway 111 perform at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 17, 2009 at Shelter Island School auditorium, Route 114, Shelter Island. Tickets are $20 in advance ($25 at the door) and $15 for students. Call 749-2355 to reserve tickets. 

Above: Sierra Hull with her mandolin

 

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