After a year on pause, Sierra Hull is looking forward to Friday night’s performance at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus.
Granted, it won’t be a traditional show. The 1,200-seat Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre still will be mostly empty. But for the Grammy-nominated, universally acclaimed bluegrass singer-songwriter and mandolin player — along with her husband, multi-instrumentalist and Madisonville native Justin Moses — it’s a start.
Besides, she told The Daily Times this week, the limited number of attendees — first responders who have been invited as special guests to witness the livestream performance in person — is a glimmer of things to come, and a vast improvement over this time last year, when she released a new album in February 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the music industry.
“It was pretty wild,” Hull said. “Everything had been in the planning stages for a long time, and the tour (around her most recent album, “25 Trips”) had been put together a year to a year and a half in advance. We were looking ahead to this thing that was going to be really special, but then everything got canceled. But I wasn’t the only one! We were all going through our own version of what it looked like. But with things starting to open back up, even if it’s not quite in a normal setting, it will be really wonderful to see a few faces.”
Even if the faces Hull and Moses see are limited to the socially distanced (and vaccinated, she added) attendees, plenty more will see her via their computer screens: The concert, part of the WDVX-FM “Smoky Mountain Jamboree” series, will be available to view for those who purchase tickets through May 2, and with the couple’s East Tennessee connections and abilities to play off of one another as both a professional and romantic couple, the performance will have a more intimate feel, Hull added.
“We certainly have a musical connection that goes back many years now with touring together and making music together,” she said. “Early on, it was just under the umbrella of my own band, with Justin coming out on the road with me and playing whatever instrument I needed at the time — banjo, fiddle, guitar — so in that situation, we’ve played a lot, and he knows my music. He has also made some solo records himself (his latest album, “Fall Like Rain,” was released in January), and he also has a lot of great instrumentals that have never been recorded.
“It’s really a wonderful opportunity for both of us to express a side of ourselves we don’t get to. For me, as I have a lot of new music I’m playing, I don’t get to play as much traditional bluegrass in my own shows, so this is a good opportunity to say, ‘Let’s play a Ralph Stanley song, or a Larry Sparks song, or a traditional fiddle tune.’ It’s easy for us, because we’re so rooted in that, to pull from that shared catalog. We’ll do a couple of things off of ‘25 Trips’ and Justin’s new record, and we’ll dig into material we’re not playing all the time. It’s definitely its own entity compared to me doing my own band shows.”
A native of Byrdstown, Hull started turning heads in the bluegrass world as a young prodigy. When she was 10, her album “Angel Mountain” prompted bluegrass maven Alison Krauss — with whom Hull shares distinct vocal sensibilities — to invite the young girl to the Grand Ole Opry stage; by 12, her current record label Rounder came calling, and ever since, she’s put one album after another in the Top 5 of the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart. In 2016, she worked with banjo phenom Béla Fleck for the record “Weighted Mind,” which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Album, but for “25 Trips,” she paired up with noted Nashville engineer Shani Gandhi to do the bulk of the work herself. Gandhi’s work speaks for itself: “25 Trips” was nominated for a Grammy this year for Best Engineered Album.
“That was different in that I wasn’t necessarily working with a hero or a fellow musician in that same kind of way,” Hull said. “With ‘25 Trips,’ I sort of left it open a little bit to let the record become what the record became in the moment, rather than going in with every inch of it planned out. I knew I wanted this record to have more instrumentation than ‘Weighted Mind,’ which was very stripped down and mostly built around my voice and mandolin and bass, and I knew I wanted to push further into experimenting with instrumentation that I hadn’t had on my own records.
“For example, this is the first album I’ve made that even has drums on it at all. Electric guitar, piano — I wanted to experiment with these things I hadn’t had on my own songs before, and I played more instruments myself than I had played before and even sang some of my own harmonies. It was experimental in the studio, and I wanted the freedom to do that, which is why I sought out Shani to bring it to life in a sonically pleasing way.”
While bluegrass is most definitely her wheelhouse — there’s a reason, after all, that roots maverick Sturgill Simpson tapped her to play mandolin and sing harmonies on his two surprise bluegrass releases last year — it’s hard to pigeonhole Hull as strictly a bluegrass musician these days. Sure, she won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Mandolin Player of the Year title for three years running (2016-18), and she’s got more nominations than some artists twice her age. But while she’s always loved tradition, she said, she’s never felt beholden to it, especially when it comes to building a record like “25 Trips.”
“I think there’s always a little (expectation) in the back of your mind, but you have to set that part of yourself aside and say, ‘OK, how much can we let that steer the ship?’” she said. “All the music I’ve loved in my life and the artists I respect tend to make music they care about and love and sort of hope other people like it, too. Of course, I make music not just for myself — if I really wanted to make music just for me I could sit at home and do that all day. So I do hope people like it, and that the music I put out into the world matters to someone else. But it’s about a balance between that and being honest about what you want to say as an artist and doing something that feels genuine.”
Friday’s performance isn’t the first time she’s played in COVID-restricted venues over the past year: She was in the band when Simpson did a livestream performance from the Ryman, and last fall, she and Moses were on the Grand Ole Opry before audience members were allowed to attend again, she said. By the same token, this isn’t her first time to Blount County, either: Bluegrass player Jesse Gregory Keen and Hull have been longtime friends since the latter took the former under her wing. In addition, she’s served as a mentor to 11-year-old mandolin wunderkind Wyatt Ellis, who also lives in the area.
“I’ve spent so much time there with Jesse being one of my best friends, and Justin being from Madisonville, and the connection with Wyatt there now,” she said. “It definitely makes Maryville feel like home, in a way. It’s far from where I grew up, but when we think about going out there to play, it feels less like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to go do this show’ and more like, ‘We get to go home to East Tennessee and also play a show, which is great!’ We’ll get to visit with Justin’s family, and I always look forward to that, because we’ve missed getting to see everybody so much over the past year.”
And of course, the fact that the presenting radio station — WDVX-FM, a champion of roots musicians of all levels of success for almost a quarter-century now — has been an ardent supporter of both Hull and her husband is just icing on the cake, she added.
“For our entire careers, as far back as I can remember, they’ve been playing our music,” she said. “They’ve been so great about putting our music out there for people to hear it and inviting both of us to be a part of things, and I love how eclectic they are. Any time we’re in East Tennessee, we’ll flip over to WDVX and see what’s playing, and we get to hear everything.
“WDVX does such a great job of embracing folks that might not have a home otherwise as far as radio goes. They’re really diverse, which as a musician, I really love, because I love listening to all different things, and I think that’s started to be reflected in my own music.”