Sierra Hull Grows Up Strong, Takes a Step Beyond Bluegrass

Nashville singer-songwriter Sierra Hull, one of the opening performers at the 43rd RockyGrass Festival this weekend, has impressed audiences with her mandolin playing since performing for her third-grade class in Byrdstown, Tennessee.

Coming up through the bluegrass ranks, she's making the leap in more ways than one at the still-tender age of 23.

Hull's stay this week in Lyons, Colorado, included her RockyGrass Academy debut as guest instructor on the mandolin. And during a lunch break, she got her first fly-fishing lesson, coming up empty despite the efforts of teacher Andy Hall, the phenomenal dobro player from the Infamous Stringdusters.

Judging by a first listen to some of the songs from her next album, the former child prodigy is also taking a bold, progressive step away from bluegrass with Weighted Mind, which is scheduled to be released in early 2016.

Performing with double bassist Ethan Jodziewicz (who's also on the album), Hull opened her impressive 75-minute set Friday (July 24) with the jazzy title cut. It was a not-so-subtle hint that she's ready to expand her musical boundaries while still showing the nifty skills that have earned eight nominations by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

The album that drops Jan. 29, her third for Rounder Records since she was signed at the age of 13, is "so different than anything I've done," Hull said in an interview following her autograph signing for a long line of fans after her Friday performance.

"I'm pleased with it. I think we worked really hard. I feel most proud probably of the songwriting. I think I wrote more songs on this project than anything I've done thus far. And they feel like truer songs for me.

"Not even necessarily saying that I've experienced everything or it's a firsthand account, like from a story line. Not even that. But they just feel like they're coming from a truer place, or a deeper place, maybe should I say. And I think that can only come almost with age and the more you've experienced."

Her first album since 2011's Daybreak, Weighted Mind relies primarily on mandolin and bass, though it was produced by innovative and versatile banjo player Bela Fleck, with almost all the songs either written or co-written by Hull.

Guest appearances include Fleck, his wife (and fellow banjo player) Abigail Washburn, Rhiannon Giddens and Alison Krauss, another former child prodigy who's become a friend and confidante since bringing an 11-year-old Hull onstage at the Grand Ole Opry.

Multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses (left) performs with Sierra Hull at RockyGrass in Lyons, Colorado.

Other new songs in her stripped-down set that also included an appearance by multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses were "Compass," "Wings of the Dawn," "Choices and Changes" and "Black River," all of which will be on the new album.

The female additions provide another first for Hull.

"The idea of having three women instead of not having any guy voices was really cool," she said, "because I've not had that before. I've never had any female voices be on my project."

"Black River" is the album's closing cut, with the guests singing harmony on the last chorus and Fleck playing "a real simple banjo thing."

"It's a neat way to end the record because it features everybody," Hull said.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more from RockyGrass 2015 in Lyons, Colorado. And look for an in-depth feature on Sierra Hull later this year.