may 2008

Dream Ticket '08

Amanda Shaw & Sierra Hull Advance The Youth Agenda In Traditional Music

By David McGee


Photo by Alicia Zappier

This is a story of two young ladies, both slightly beyond their mid-teens, both ordinary teenagers in many respects, both extraordinarily gifted musicians by any measure who also happen to be in the spotlight now with new albums on the Rounder label that position them in the forefront of a burgeoning embrace of traditional music by young people in this country (a topic to be addressed more fully in next month’s issue). Moreover, as females they are charging into male-dominated fields and becoming pioneering role models for others of their generation and sex. They are serious, dedicated musicians with a keen sense of history, musical and otherwise, and both have reached out to their communities to make a life a little better for those around them. Both are impressively articulate in conversation, speaking in complete, slang-free sentences, answering questions with thoughtful responses revealing admirable common sense and a strong moral code guiding their actions and aspirations. One, 17-year-old Amanda Shaw of New Orleans, is, by her own estimation, “ditzy and goofy,” but also focused and insightful about career matters, perhaps because at her tender age she’s been around, having already served as an opening act for teen country superstar Taylor Swift, but well before that appearing in two Disney TV movies; sitting in on violin with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, making her, at age eight, the youngest soloist in the Symphony’s history; cutting her first album, the independent Little Black Dog, at age 9, and a second, I’m Not A Bubble Gum Princess, at age 12; being a fixture on the local music scene for nigh on to a decade now and a fan favorite at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, where she’s been performing since age 10 and selling as many or more CDs as any artist on the star-studded bill. The other, 16-year-old Sierra Hull of tiny Byrdstown, Tennessee, in the northeast corner of the state, almost abutting the Kentucky state line, is more circumspect but no less eloquent in explaining herself and reflecting on the suddenly hectic pace of her career, which now includes her debut as a film actress, playing the young Catherine Graham in a Robbie Benson-directed theatrical biopic about Billy Graham’s early years. Whereas the voluble Shaw speaks eagerly in a chirpy, sing-song, almost giddy manner, Hull responds in the softer, more muted tones of the small-town country girl she is, which is not to suggest a lack of confidence, intellect or sense of humor—she has all, in abundance, but exudes confidence in the manner of a veteran who is driven to prove something every time out, but doesn’t have to talk about it—it simply is and will be; as for her intellect and sense of humor, she’s hip to the absurdities of the world around her, views and understands them through the prism of her deep-rooted Christian faith, but is hardly the dour type; rather, she’ll reveal her convictions and her conscience, then add a giggly aside to let you know she’s not taking it all too seriously, or offer, with a chuckle, a self-effacing comment to let you know she’s not taking herself too seriously either.

But to listen to Amanda Shaw’s Pretty Runs Out and Sierra Hull’s Secrets is to hear not only preternaturally talented young people, but artists whose unassailable integrity and rigorous discipline will inspire others of their generation and even younger to embrace traditional music, bring their own sensibility and influences to bear on it and then shape it into a form accessible to all generations. The past lives in Amanda Shaw and Sierra Hull, but the future is what they’re all about.


Onstage at B.B. King's in New York City, closing the set with cajun fiddle pioneer Dennis McGee's 'La Danse Carrée’: Her set reflects her respect for the history of the music, and of the place, closest to her heart (Photo by Alicia Zappier)

It’s a chilly, early April day in New York City when Amanda Shaw pulls into B.B. King’s club on 42nd Street in Times Square for her first Manhattan appearance. As the 8 p.m. start time nears, the club begins to fill up, and by the time she comes onstage only the seats in the hinterlands remain unoccupied.

But the customers aren’t there to see Amanda Shaw. Her name isn’t even on the marquee outside. The sound engineer doesn’t introduce her when she and her band, The Cute Guys, take the stage. She doesn’t even introduce herself until she finishes her second song, “Chirmolito,” a sultry, swamp-rock come-on worthy of Tony Joe White that affords her the opportunity to give the audience a taste of her Cajun fiddle style and her seductive voice. Dressed in a scoop-necked, silver lame dress cut just above the knees of her athletic legs, with her long, straight, shiny brunette hair whipping around and her bangs often covering her eyes as she gyrates in time to the music, she’s a whirlwind, commanding the stage with ease, not for a second showing a trace of nerves, and speaking to the audience as if she’s known them forever.

Yet the response from the crowd is muted. They’re here to see the artist whose name is on the marquee, one Bo Bice—yes, that Bo Bice, he of the pedestrian talent and manufactured celebrity that is the hallmark of “American Idol” fame. In fact, it’s not until about halfway through Amanda’s half-hour-plus set that the patrons are intrigued enough to look up from their pulled pork sandwiches, mac and cheese and beers to lock into a superb, moody version of the reconfigured Diane Warren song, “I Don’t Want To Be Your Friend,” an overtly pop confection, complete with thundering drums, twangy guitar punctuations and Amanda supporting her atmospheric, richly textured vocal with a keening fiddle solo.

The tepid response leads to the only false moment in the set. In introducing a Charlie Daniels song, Shaw offers effusive, clearly scripted praise to the crowd for the enthusiasm it hasn’t really been showing, allows in her delicious bayou accent how she “loves a good pawtee” and inexplicably adds that all this has convinced her that “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” and launches into said number, another occasion for some red-hot fiddling on her part.

They eat on.

Then she thanks everyone for showing up, bids them good-night, and kicks off the unannounced finale with an electrifying flurry of rapidly bowed lines. As the song unfolds, and the band stays silent behind her, Shaw, not even attempting to humor the crowd by making eye contact, is totally locked into a piece of imposing technical complexity and shifting, insistent tempos. Her intensity is gripping, the song majestic and driving, her bowing fevered and flawless. The pulled pork sandwiches are resting on plates, the drinks are getting warm, the audience is mesmerized (except for Bice’s neatly coiffed, endlessly chattering handlers at the bar, who are fixated on a willowy blonde in tight blue jeans and a tank top she’s about to overflow). Shaw finishes, then trots offstage without ever naming the song, but what the audience has witnessed is part of what makes her so fascinating: a set that included a Charlie Daniels country song, a Diane Warren pop song, a chunky funk workout (“Brick Wall,” an original homage to one of her favorite songs, the Commodores’ “Brick House”) closed with “La Danse Carrée,” dating from the 1929-30 recordings by Cajun fiddle pioneer Dennis McGee (a medley of his songs is one of the 13 tracks on Pretty Runs Out), whose style informs Shaw’s every bit as much as does that of Doug Kershaw, Richard Greene and Stuart Duncan and reflects her respect for the history of the music, and of the place, closest to her heart. As amazing as it was here, in her 17th year, so it was when she was nine, and dazzling anyone who heard it on her Little Black Dog album.

Later for Bo.


Amanda's producer Scott Billington in the studio with Ruth Brown

I heard her when she was only nine or 10 years old, when she was playing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, on the kids’ stage the first time I saw her. I thought, Hmm, there’s a young girl who can really play the fiddle. But it was kind of a novelty and I didn’t pay that much attention to it. Couple of years later I heard her again and could see that she was developing a charisma that you don’t find in many musicians or entertainers. The way that she talked to an audience, even when she was 10, 11, 12 years old, was very commanding, very funny and very engaging. That was the first thing that made me think, Boy, this is an uncommon talent we have here.
“Then I got to know her a little more, saw her perform a few more times, and came to realize she was also very serious about pursuing music that meant something to her—she’s a serious musician. All those things put together, it seemed like, boy, this is something I would love to be involved with.”

Thus does Scott Billington recollect his first encounters with Amanda Shaw in her native New Orleans. Billington is a Grammy winning producer who is deeply invested in the music of Louisiana (he’s from Massachusetts, but once played harmonica in Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, and his wide ranging producer credits include first-rate albums with Irma Thomas and Buckwheat Zydeco) and also happens to be the vice president of A&R for Rounder Records. When he decides he wants to get involved with an artist, he can pretty much make it happen. With Amanda, it was a two-year process from signing to finished first album, and in that time he found out that his sense of her was right on the money—she’s an uncommon talent—and she has even more depth of character than he detected at first blush.


Amanda cradles a baby alligator on the set of 'Hurricane On The Bayou'

When a 17-year-old girl answers the phone at noon in mid-week to do an interview, it’s impossible not to ask her why she’s not in school. Which elicits the first of what prove to be many delightful, unself-conscious laughs.

“Oh, I’m finishing up on my own, doing independent study courses,” Amanda explains. “I spent 11 years in traditional school, and I was in my senior year and pretty close, and I figured it would be better to take my time instead of stretching myself out in school or in my music.”

So tutoring supplants the classroom, but what about the social scene? She admits it was a “hard decision” to forego traditional schooling, but also the right decision. Anyway, she had a gig on her prom night—at New Orleans’ Rock ‘n’ Bowl. Which is exactly what it sounds like—you can rock out to live music and bowl a few frames while you’re at it.

“It’s the coolest place in New Orleans!” she exclaims (note: almost every sentence Shaw utters could be followed by an exclamation mark. The reader is hereby advised to provide his or her own such punctuation from this point forward). “What I like about Rock ‘n’ Bowl is it’s an all ages place; anybody can go because it’s a bowling alley, they serve food there, and it’s a bar, but it’s also live music. People happen to drink because it’s a bar, but it’s mostly about seeing the music and hanging out.

“Actually, it’s one of the only places where they don’t have the electronic scoring. It’s one of the oldest bowling places, and it’s one of the few places where they give you the paper and you have to figure it out; it’s not done electronically. It’s really cool. We have tons of music venues that are just wonderful here in New Orleans. That’s why I love the city so much.”

She does indeed love New Orleans, and Louisiana, and uses not only her music but her growing celebrity to raise consciousness about the critical issues facing the city and the state in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She gave up acting after appearing in the Disney TV films, Stuck In the Suburbs (2004) and Now You See It (2005), an experience she looks back as nothing more than a passing fancy: “Um, I was just trying it out. It wasn’t really for me, because you have to be really good at being somebody else. And I’m so ditzy and goofy, I can’t be anybody else other than me, and that’s why I love music, because it’s all about expressing yourself and all that good stuff.” (Scott Billington believes Disney wanted Amanda for the Hannah Montana role but she declined, fortunately for Billy Ray Cyrus’s career.) But she was drawn back before the camera when asked to appear in the 2006 IMAX documentary, Hurricane On the Bayou, produced and directed by Greg MacGillivray, whose extensive credits include another gripping IMAX film, 1998’s Everest, which featured music by George Harrison and wound up on Variety’s top 10 box office chart for the year. The animating event of Hurricane was not Katrina, however; it was the disappearing wetlands that were altering the coast of Louisiana and eliminating one of nature’s natural barriers to warding off Katrina-like disaster. In light of the wetlands’ precarious health, MacGillivray wondered what would happen if a Category 4 or 5 hurricane struck New Orleans. The documentary was finished and set to be released when Katrina came calling, necessitating a complete rewrite and re-shoot. During the re-shoot, he captured several indelible moments in the submerged city, including a quick glimpse of Amanda cradling her head in her hands in shock while looking at part of her home that had been crushed by a falling tree.

“The hardest thing was that it was like losing your identity because everything you had known was gone overnight,” she remembers of her emotions that day. “If you can just imagine, the storm comes and not just a home, not just a neighborhood, but an entire region has been displaced. Your credit cards don’t work; your cell phones don’t work; your friends and your family aren’t there with you any more and you’re back to basics. We had to use the cash we had because our credit cards didn’t work anymore. How do you get in touch with people? Your cell phones don’t work. It was just not knowing what was gonna happen—whether my school was going to be there, whether my dad’s job was going to be there, or what had happened to our house. Just not knowing, that was probably the hardest thing for us.”


Recording the soundtrack for 'Hurricane On The Bayou': (from left) Amanda, Chubby Carrier, Allen Toussaint, Marva Wright

Shaw is one of a handful of musical artists MacGillivray picked to represent the Louisiana music scene; she’s joined by blues artist Tab Benoit, gospel queen Marva Wright, Zydeco master Chubby Carrier and all-around New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. Needless to say, the docu’s music is amazing and moving, and it does the job of reminding viewers of the undiminished vitality of the Crescent City scene. Shaw just didn’t show up to play, though. She got an education, as anyone will attest who’s seen her introduce the film—she went out on tour with it and spoke to audiences about the issues raised in the film and still very much unresolved today. Replenishing the wetlands has become, next to music, her cause. 

“Growing up here, I didn’t even realize there was a problem with the wetlands,” she admits. “Doing this film really opened my eyes and I’ve become very passionate about it. What began the problem with the wetlands is the levees they built a long time ago—farmers would have floods on their land, so to prevent the floods they built these levees. But the levees don’t allow the wetlands to replenish themselves; doesn’t allow the soil to go where it needs to go so we can naturally replenish our wetlands.

“Another problem is making canals for boat navigation. That speeds up erosion. And a lot of it is natural erosion but levees and canals speed the process of erosion. Basically when a hurricane hits land the wetlands reduce the force of a storm, and without those wetlands there, without that buffer, we’re going to get the full strength hurricane; whereas before the natural wetlands would weaken the storm before it came to New Orleans.”

She has all the facts at hand, and it’s an impressive and sincere presentation. She talks about it onstage, as she does a Cajun culture she views as dying out and in need of replenishment. The music is her contribution to that cause.

“How do you keep that culture surviving and make it available to a crowd and make it somewhat cool?” she offers. “I started Cajun music in particular because I’m from Louisiana and we have so much great music. In Cajun music I love that people get together and they dance from eight o’clock in the evening until, like, two o’clock in the morning. They get together and they dance and they eat and they visit and they hang out with friends and it’s all about having a good time. Even the songs are about hanging out and having a good time. That’s what I love so much about it. Especially dancing, it’s for all ages, and it’s a good time for friends and family, and I wanted to be a part of it. So some fiddlers I met would say, ‘We’re playing at 8 o’clock at such-and-such a place. Why don’t you come?’ And I’d bring my little fiddle—I was about eight years old and they’d let me bring my fiddle. I never knew any of the songs. Nothing was ever written down for me or rehearsed or anything because Cajun music doesn’t have any of that. You know, you can’t find it written down or anything; it’s all about passing it down from generation to generation.”


Amanda makes a joyful noise with the gospel choir at New Orleans' St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continually operating cathedral in North America, founded in 1720. It escaped Hurricane Katrina with only minor damage. 'I try to bring different styles of music and bring modern elements together with Cajun music.'

She demonstrates her way of passing it down every time she sets foot on stage, by finding a route into songs in other styles and giving them a Cajun flavor. She did it with tunes by the Clash (“Should I Stay Or Should I Go”) and the Ramones (“I Wanne Be Your Girlfriend”) on I’m Not a Bubble Gum Pop Princess, and she does it on the range of tunes, original and covers, on Pretty Runs Out.

“I try to bring different stuff to music,” she says. “I say, Why can’t Cajun music be rock ‘n’ roll? It makes people dance, and it is something you can have fun to; and you can rock just as hard to Cajun music as you can to a Ramones song or a Clash song. And that’s what I do—I try to bring different styles of music and bring modern elements together with Cajun music.”

The other constant in her life apart from music is her family, a mother, father and older brother who have always been supportive of her musical endeavors but not demanding. “My parents aren’t like stage parents where they push me to be on stage and they’re like, Oh, look what you can do, or anything. It’s not like that. My parents help me reach my goals. If I tell my mom, ‘You know what? I think this is what I want to do,’ she says, ‘Okay, go for it.’ My family gives me the ammo I need to accomplish the things I want to accomplish. Or if that’s not what I want to do, it’s okay too. I love to go shopping with my friends, too; I live a pretty nice life. I love my life and I live for every day.”

She got the bug to play the violin at age three, after seeing a symphony concert on TV, and was soon thereafter enrolled in a music school and on her way fast—witness the aforementioned solo appearance with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra. Then she got the Cajun music bug, and it was adieu to the classical career. “Classical, it’s good and I still use it to practice, because it’s kind of like playing a sport—you can play the sport but you have to have the training too. Classical music is sort of like that training.”

Not that there hasn’t been a bump in the road. The two-year pre-production process on Pretty Runs Out had barely begun when her long-time guitar player Scott Thomas died of a heart attack. “It was a tough thing for Amanda,” Billington recalls. “I think it was the first death of someone she’d been that close to.”

Nevertheless, she soldiered on and worked through the grief. It was much more rigorous recording process than she’d experienced on her first two, locally produced, independently released albums. And as an artist, she had some growing to do, in Billington’s estimation. In December 2005 he cut some demos with her, and after listening to them anew recently, was surprised at what he heard.

“It’s a completely different person—I mean you can tell it’s her, but she’s just come so far as a singer,” he says of those early tracks. “I’m glad we waited until we did to make the record. Now she’s truly figuring out how to use her voice to tell a story, to get an emotion across. When we cut that demo session, I thought, Maybe she’s a little too young. But now I hear it and think maybe she’s matured even beyond her years.”

Billington also teamed Amanda with some veteran writers in the New Orleans area with whom she could develop ideas—and he’s quick to confirm that Amanda is credited as a co-writer because that’s what she did. Working with Shannon McNally, Jim McCormick, Cranston Clements (who had joined the band after Thomas’s death, but has since left to pursue his own projects) and Anders Osborne, Shaw found herself on the fast track to becoming a polished tunesmith.

Says Billington: “The ideas for all of these songs came from Amanda. That was important from my perspective, that if a song was going to tell a story that it be her story. With Shannon McNally, the song ‘Chirmolito’ was written soon after Hurricane Katrina. There were a couple of very hard working Mexican laborers in Amanda’s neighborhood who helped the Shaws rebuild their house, and that song was written about them.

“On ‘Brick Wall,’ Amanda had been free-associating words one day, and she was thinking of schoolyard chants, taunts and so forth that she had heard over the years, and that was one of them. Cranston had been working on this groove with his two sons, who are both in their early teens, and it struck me all of a sudden that ‘Brick Wall/Waterfall/Boy you think you know it all’ fit perfectly with Cranston’s groove. So we all laughed about that and set about writing the rest of the song.”

And some songs, Amanda admits, she grew into. Literally.

“The song I wrote with Anders, ‘Wishing Me Away,’ I wrote that song with him when I was 13. To be honest, when we wrote the song, and it was beautiful and I loved it, I hadn’t a clue as to what it meant. I was like ‘‘Wishing Me Away,’ well what is that?’ You know? But Anders, he’s very cool and it’s all about (speaking in a dramatic low whisper) the vibe has to be right and everything. Then about a year or two later my guitar player passed away and all of a sudden the song made sense. I was listening to his song the night of his funeral, and it all made sense to me. It was like, wow. Sometimes you grow into the songs. So it was a process, it really was.”

So while there was plenty of room for Amanda to grow as a singer and songwriter, when it came to fiddling, according to Billington, she was in the pocket. “She doesn’t need any direction there. She knows what she’s doing. For some of the songs, she and I talked about trying to find an individual fiddle voice that would be unique to that song. So on ‘Chirmolito’ she’s playing a fairly low register, bluesy fiddle style; on something like the Diane Warren song, the Cajun thing kind of melds well with that. On the Riders of the Purple Sage song, ‘Garden of Eden,’ she’s playing a much more atmospheric and kind of freewheeling fiddle style. So we did try to find a fiddle approach for each song. And she pushed herself there. The Cajun stuff, she’s as good at as anybody out there playing today. But she worked on some of the other things conceptually as much as anything else.”

Still, two years is a long time to be at it, and the question arises as to whether Billington saw any restlessness surfacing in Amanda as the months wore on.

“Well, losing Scott Thomas was certainly a rough spot, and I think we probably would have cut the record sooner had he not passed away,” Billington states, then he pauses before continuing: “I don’t know. How can I put this? She can be really stubborn. She doesn’t want to be told what to do. She wants things to come from a very natural place in her. Sometimes I could get a little frustrated when I thought, Boy, she’s just not giving this idea a chance. But then I’d be impressed when I’d come back the next day and she’d say, ‘You know what? I think I will give that idea a try.’ Her stubbornness and her certainty about herself are her greatest assets, and if every now and then maybe I had to push her, usually if she came around to it, it was worth doing, and if she didn’t come around to it, it was usually not a good idea on my part.”

Amanda was neither frustrated by nor impatient with the extended timeframe. “Because I knew it was gonna happen. I guess, you know, sometimes I was like, I can’t wait to get in there and get it done. But you know what? In the end it really paid off to take our time with it. And this is something me and Mr. Scott”—everyone in Amanda’s world is either “Mr.” or “Miss”—“talked about, that the main purpose of the record is to have a good record that I’m proud of now—and I am—and a record that I know I’ll be able to look back on in twenty years and say, ‘I did that, that’s where I was and I’m proud of the work that we did.’”

How does Billington see Amanda’s career developing?

“I think Amanda wants to be an artist with some longevity who has something to say and who doesn’t stray from the music that’s true to what she wants to do, that represents who she is and what she wants to be. I would expect it would always have an element of roots in it.”

And Amanda herself?

“Like I said, I live for every day, so I don’t ever say, ‘In five years I want to win a Grammy,’ or ‘In ten years I want to sell so many records,’ or whatever. I don’t really like to put it that way. Really, I do live for every moment, and I’m just enjoying Pretty Runs Out right now and I’m enjoying sitting here and talking to you and being able to go out and do what I do.

“My own meek goal for my whole entire life is no matter what to live a happy life and to be a happy person. You hear so many stars, they get older and they go out and do these things and they’re so miserable and they talk about how unhappy they are and this and that. I don’t ever want to have to complain or feel miserable or unhappy about my life. You can’t do that. I love my life and I love living it. I just never want music ever to be a job for me. I want to make sure it stays fun, you know, no matter what I do. As I said, just to live a happy life, no matter where that might take me, as long as I can enjoy every day like I have.”



U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, signing the Hull-Trujillo Treaty, September 24, 1940. The treaty returned control of the Dominican to the Dominican government.

Cordell Hull was a man of achievement, a towering figure in 20th Century American history whose name isn’t even close to being a household word anymore, although it’s a rare news day when the United Nations, the organization whose blueprint he wrote, isn’t in the headlines. Born in a log cabin in Willow Grove, TN (the town no longer exists, having been submerged by the waters of the Dale Hollow Dam), Hull was a lawyer, judge, soldier (he fought in the Spanish-American War), Tennessee State and U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for 18 years, a tireless and eloquent advocate for free trade, author of the first Federal Income Tax Bill, the Revised Act and the Federal and State Inheritance Tax Law and for 11 years Secretary of State under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the longest tenure of any Sec. of State. During those years he pushed reforms that begat the “Good Neighbor” policy mandating the abolition of American intervention in Latin American affairs and the promotion of free trade agreements with European and Latin American nations. Although he foresaw the coming of WWII, his warnings to the military and others to be prepared were largely unheeded; after the war, following his resignation (for reasons of ill health) from the Cabinet, he was a member of and senior advisor to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Conference, held in San Francisco in 1945; his efforts in this endeavor earned him the Nobel Prize that same year.

However, there is no record anywhere of Cordell Hull’s exceptional talents including that of playing the mandolin with breathtaking facility and singing like an angel at any age, much less in his mid-teens. But one of Cordell’s cousins (“fourth or fifth cousin”) has begat a Hull descendant who has musical gifts on a par with her famous forebear’s political and diplomatic savvy.

That would be 16-year-old Sierra Hull, whose debut album, Secrets, was released on May 6 to wide acclaim by Rounder, the same label Amanda Shaw calls home. Produced by Ron Block (from Alison Krauss’s Union Station band, a banjoist par excellence who has two fine solo albums to his credit as well), Secrets begins with a quick pair of delicate, descending mandolin lines that run back up the neck before Sierra enters asserting in a high, sweet, crystalline voice, “No one else will ever know/This is how these passions always grow…” This is the title song, and it’s pure Sierra—seamless, confident instrumental work, an uncommonly expressive voice of tender years suggesting a well of complex feelings about to overflow in an ache of classic dimensions. There’s no denying the Alison Krauss influence everywhere—in the presence of Block behind the board, in the instrumental support provided by Block and fellow Union Station members Dan Tyminski and Jerry Douglas, in Hull’s silky, keening timbre, in the tight, ringing ensemble instrumental work and in the quiet, captivating ambiance throughout. Krauss even helped pick some of the songs.

But Sierra Hull stands on her own merits from first cut to last, serving notice of being here for the long haul and every bit as capable as Krauss of respecting tradition while expanding the bluegrass lexicon. With Block’s assured guidance, Secrets is the ideal framework for Hull’s audacious artistry, which extends across the board to embrace vocalizing and picking of the first order as well as assured songwriting, as evidenced by the wistful remembrance of wanderlust expressed in the trundling rhythm of the rail recalled in “Two Winding Rails” (co-written with her father) and more profoundly in her own surging, minor key lament for unrequited love, “Pretend,” in which she sounds preternaturally scarred. But she’s also able to have fun with heartbreak in a romping bluegrass treatment of the classic Connie Francis chart topper from 1960, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” before laying on the interminable hurt again in an exquisite tearjerker, “Only My Heart,” that burns its way into memory when Stuart Duncan emerges with an exquisitely crafted fiddle solo that lifts the whole endeavor onto a plane where feeling runs so deep it obviates the need for words. A deeper aspect of Sierra’s personality and artistry emerges in the final cut, the 1887 hymn, “Trust and Obey,” on which she’s backed only by Block’s spare, evocative guitar as she offers the song’s solemn testimony in a voice imbued with the serenity and certainty of a true believe, which she is. Secrets is, all in all, a most compelling calling card and, like Shaw’s Pretty Runs Out, almost as exciting for what it says about the artist’s promising future as for what occurs on the tracks.


Onstage at age 11 with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski: 'I was probably a little obsessed back then, when somebody can be such an inspiration for you.'

Just as age eight proved to be a pivotal year for Amanda Shaw, so it was with Sierra Hull. She wasn’t playing with a symphony orchestra at that age, though; in fact, she was only then being introduced to her instrument by her bluegrass loving amateur musician father. But she’d already felt the urge to play from listening to him pick tunes at home, so it was an easy sell. It never occurred to her that she wasn’t exactly drifting towards music most of her peers regarded cool.

“I’m just in many ways an open minded person, not just in music but in all aspects of everything,” she explains in her soft Tennessee drawl. “Trying food to whatever, I’ll try anything almost, and I guess I’ve always had some of that in me. So it wasn’t like I was really suckered into thinking, Oh, man, this isn’t cool. At that point I found it to be something that was fun, and my dad seemed to be excited that I was wanting to learn how to play. It felt pretty natural, mostly, and it’s fun, especially at that age, when you’re trying to do something and you’re learning new tunes and the farther you start moving the more you want to keep going with it. So I think I got inspired by that first little time I picked up the mandolin and he started showing me some tunes. I fell in love with doing it. And never really thought too much about going anywhere else with it, or feeling like I should be playing some other kind of music, or doing something else.”

Years before she started playing music, Sierra was singing it, in church (she attends services regularly now at Oak Grove Baptish Church), and coming back from church, riding in the car with her family, which includes an older brother. The bluegrass gospel of Doyle Lawson was a particular favorite, but these family singalongs also led her deeper into the roots of the music, through the progressive scene, right up to the present day.

“Hearing Doyle and that sort of sound, of traditional bluegrass gospel, that was my first, kind of exposure to bluegrass music. And that was all I knew at that time; in my mind that’s just what we did. We sang some in church and that’s what we listened to, and I had no reason not to like it (laughs). Then I started getting into Alison and the band, and it’s more contemporary stuff, especially later on. I was listening to a whole lot of contemporary bluegrass in the beginning, and now I’m going back and listening to more traditional things, the older I’m getting. I find it more interesting now than I ever would have back then, because I find it really easier to appreciate and get excited over now. I think, Man, that was back in the day when they just went in there and did all that live. It’s real exciting to hear someone like Jimmy Martin sing so great, or Flatt & Scruggs; it’s really cool to me, when back then I probably would have been more attracted to contemporary bluegrass. That’s still what I like to play the best, but it’s funny how now I feel like I can be so inspired by that music more than I ever really would have when I was younger.

“I find all of it. I’m one of the biggest J.D. Crowe fans—he’s one of those people I just start laughing when I watch him. I can’t really contain it; I just start laughing because it’s so great. Especially when J.D. had Tony Rice in his band. And that band—hearing that is insanely good. But I’ve definitely spent many hours listening and trying to learn Chris Thile solos, listening to what he does. I’m totally open to that too, because it’s so brilliant, all the Nickel Creek stuff. It just shows you what’s possible. I think it’s good for everybody to be open minded about it. I feel like everybody wants to put a label on what bluegrass is. But I don’t feel like that’s the way I look at it all; I don’t say, ‘That’s not bluegrass!’ I say, ‘Who cares what it is? If you like it, you like it.’ I feel like somebody like Chris, who’s really gone out on a limb and done his own thing and almost at a certain point got real far out there, I feel like even he and all those guys would say, ‘We’re bluegrass musicians. That’s where we come from, and that’s where everything we do is inspired by and comes from.’ I feel like Alison and all the guys who have taken a left turn away from ‘traditional bluegrass’ still always consider themselves bluegrass artists.”

Above all others, Krauss stood out for Hull—her voice, her choice of songs, the arrangements, the mandolin work of Adam Steffey behind  her. And—

“She’s a lady. I’m sure that was something that really drew me to it, thinking, Oh, wow, I want to be that someday. It’s so easy to see. I always knew, even before I met her, that she would be a nice person. I just always knew that. It’s so easy tell through what she does and the way she goes about doing it, and just her personality, her stage presence. All that led me to think she was somebody I would admire not only musically but in general, and that’s true.”

As it happens, Chris Thile figures prominently in Sierra’s Alison Krauss connection—he introduced the two at Merlefest six years ago. It was a prayer answered, according to Sierra, who confirms stories that on the way to Merlefest she asked her mother and father to pray that she would be able to meet Alison. She laughs about it now, and adds sheepishly: “I was probably a little obsessed back then, when somebody can be such an inspiration for you.”


Producer Ron Block: 'I wanted to make this record at the highest level possible, so Sierra would have that as a benchmark to beat the next time.'

Ron Block was at that Merlefest gathering too, but he didn’t meet Sierra until almost a year later, at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association convention. Before he met her, he heard her, and the sound caught his attention.

“I was standing there, and a bunch of kids were playing,” he recalls. “Then I heard somebody playing off to my right, and thought it was somebody in their early 20s that had been playing for a few years. Look over there and there’s an 11-year-old girl. So it was pretty thrilling to see her.”

By that time, Sierra had recorded an album on her own, an all-instrumental outing with some local musicians titled Angel Mountain, talk of which elicits a self-conscious laugh from Sierra, who admits to remembering almost nothing about the sessions other than “detail” and adds how it’s been years since she even listened to it. She came to Secrets a much different musician than the one heard on Angel Mountain.

“I had so much time in between to grow and become more of a listener, and to have a higher level of excellence that I desire now,” she says. “I really had time to grow up just a little bit more and mature as a musician. I know that just by listening to Angel Mountain and listening to Secrets, you can tell there’s a big difference in not only that, but in just making a quality recording. We spent a lot of time working on Secrets.”

A year, to be precise, on Secrets, but not a solid 12-month routine. Block’s band went on tour with Tony Rice shortly after the Secrets tracking sessions were completed at Nashville’s Seventeen Grand studio, then Krauss and Union Station went out for a bit before Block could return to complete the Hull project with vocals and overdubs at his own Pro Tools-equipped home studio.

For all the assurance and smarts she exhibits vocally, Sierra says singing was her biggest concern going into the sessions. She’s had no vocal training at all but did her own version of pre-production at home by accompanying herself on guitar and “figuring out how I might want to sing the songs.

“At first I was a little bit nervous upon singing for the first time. I feel like singing isn’t necessarily—and I’m really working hard to improve that and it’s slowly coming—but it’s not as much of a comfort zone for me as playing. Playing, I’ve been doing that for so long now, I really don’t worry about it. It’s not easier, necessarily, but easier for me to be more confident in that. If I had troubles or anything it wasn’t necessarily the song, but finding the confidence to go, Okay, I know I can do this. I just have to go in and do the best I can. And I feel like that’s really all you can, do the best you can, and that’s what I tried to do on Secrets, the best I could.

“I’m really finding singing to be something I’m really passionate about. I love to play, and I know for a fact that if somebody is talking about me they’ll say something about my mandolin playing, or that’ll be what they think of rather than my singing. And I hope that with this record, and with the coming years, that people will start thinking of me not just as a mandolin player that sings, but as a singer that also plays mandolin. Because I’ve really come to feel like singing is really important to me, and I’ve really grown to love it more and more.”

Block pinpoints it best when he says Sierra “has a real sweet spirit in her singing. She comes off great and she’s only going to get better. That’s the deal.” He’s quick to point out that the young artist impressed him with how quickly she adapted to the recording regimen, so much so that he’s going to give her more responsibility next time around.

“She’s really observant and she’s smart, she learns fast and she pays attention. And she listens to what I say!” he says cheerily. “I told her on the next record I’m going to have her sit there and overdub people and learn how to work the recording stuff, just to get a little bit more hands-on experience. She was up to speed pretty fast. And she got really comfortable once we started doing overdubs at my studio. The tracking I think was a little bit nerve-wracking, just trying to get all the tracks down and wanting to sing good.”

If it’s not apparent already, note here that Sierra was an active participant in the making of her Rounder debut. Krauss brought in four songs for her—including “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” which was once in the Cox Family repertoire; “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder,” co-written by bluegrass legend Lou Reid; “That’s All I Can Say,” from the pen of Marshall Wilborn; and the album’s penultimate lament, “Only My Heart”—but Hull and Block together searched through batches of albums for other material, finding one, “The Hard Way,” on a Keith Urban album. But of all the songs, it’s her own “Pretend” that makes the strongest impression, because of its theme of unrequited love.

So, 16-year-old Sierra Hull, where does this come from?

“Yeah, yeah,” she says with weary understanding. “I expect people to go, ‘What!? She’s 16 and she wrote that!? What kind of TV has she been watching?’ I find that being a girl, you can find all kinds of pretty stuff, really pretty songs that are great to sing as a girl, but it’s really hard to find more bluegrass edge kind of stuff. I didn’t mean for the song to end up being so moody; I must have been having a sappy day. I wanted to write something in the key of B, which is a fun, bluegrass key to sing and play in, and I wanted to be able to do something there that I could sing, as a girl. I just started writing down stuff thinking, you know, how bluegrass songs go, always about falling in love or something crazy like that going on. So it was really trying to pull out my bluegrass influences and see what kind of song I could come up with. That’s what came out, I guess. We sort of just made everybody play real tame on it, so to speak, but real moody. I was real happy with the way it ended up sounding.”

Both she and Block reserve special praise for Stuart Duncan’s solo on “Only My Heart.” It is a striking moment, to be sure, and the very mention of it causes Hull to gasp. “I don’t care whose record this is, and I’m not uplifting anything that’s called mine; I’m just uplifting Stuart when I say this: He totally made that song awesome,” she says emphatically. “I remember listening to that in the studio; he played the song through six or seven times to give us different ideas and things, and every time he would play something it would be just amazing. I was listening to that and there would be times I would have to get up and leave; I couldn’t sit there and listen to it, it made me so emotional and so overwhelmed by how good it was, that I just couldn’t take it. I hear him play that, and I just go, Man, that is beautiful!”

Block is more succinct in his appraisal of the Duncan solo: “It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. I couldn’t believe it.”

About bringing Hull so deeply into the recording process, Block says he planned from the start to solicit her opinions on everything, and give her an education in a certain approach to studio work. “I wanted her to do the legwork and see what it took to get all the songs. And now she knows. She really knows what it’s like to make a record. And I also wanted to make it at the highest level possible, so she would have that in her mind as a standard, a benchmark to beat the next time. I didn’t want to just go in there and rip off a record real quick—well, I just can’t work that way. I’ve been in our band too long, where we work on stuff until we like it, instead of having to rush through it. She was great. She’s confident, but not to the point of arrogance.”

From what Hull says, it seems Block’s method paid off. “I feel like through doing this I have learned so much,” she says. “I can’t stress how much I’ve learned. I feel like I really know now. Coming into this I knew what I wanted to do with it, I knew I had a lot of ideas, and I knew that I had some experience with being around recording; but I hadn’t ever really got to make a record quite like this or even be a part of an album quite like this, where you go in and you cut the tracks and you do some overdub kind of stuff and then you sing the vocals. It was a new experience for me, and then to do it to that quality level, I hadn’t ever really had a chance to do that. So I learned a tremendous amount through the whole process, and I feel like during that time I did the very best I could do. So I look back at it and I’m happy about it all, and I go, You know, that was me at that time. By by the end of it I was going, ‘I think I could sing that better now,’ or something like that. I’m happy with it and I do think the next one will be better, because I got a big learning experience out of doing this one, and I feel like I can use that to make the next one better.”


'My faith the most important thing in the world to me. I feel so blessed to be able to do everything I’ve been able to.' Sierra is making her acting debut playing Catherine Graham, Billy Graham's sister, in a biopic about the evangelist's early life. In the film she sings Graham's theme song 'Just As I Am.'

There are other big doings in Sierra’s life now. For one, there’s the role as Catherine Graham in the biopic Billy: The Early Years, slated for theatrical release this fall. The part came out of the blue, when the producers and director Robbie Benson asked Hull to appear in it singing the hymn that became the Rev. Graham’s theme, “Just As I Am.” Before she knew it, she was playing young Catherine Graham, and speaking lines as well as singing hymns. She might have been nervous about all this, she says, except that the men’s choir she sings with in the big scene is comprised of Ronnie McCoury, John Cowan, Ronnie Bowman, John Wesley Ryles and Harry Stinson, with Randy Scruggs on guitar. “I tell you what, having them there was a blessing, because it was a long night. We filmed two different scenes but they were real similar; two different shots in the same scene. So we worked for about 12 hours, and just having those guys there made it so much more fun for me. To have some musicians there to hang out with and just goof off with, or else I would have felt, whoa, a little out of place.”

So might she get the acting bug and find a new career path?

It is to laugh, and she does. “I doubt that’s gonna happen,” she retorts. “I would never think of doing anything else; I’m so certain of that. I find it kind of humorous. I definitely don’t think of myself as a serious actress, but I’m happy to be a part of it and do the best job I can.”

The matter of faith in her life is no laughing matter, though, and it’s one reason why the album’s final song, “Trust and Obey,” is so powerful. It comes from a real place in her soul.

“My faith the most important thing in the world to me, truthfully speaking,” she says. “I feel so blessed to be able to do everything I’ve been able to. I don’t feel like I’ve ever really tried to make things happen, you know. I’ve worked hard at it, and I’ve always loved it and I’ve had parents who have been really good to take me wherever I’ve needed to go, but I certainly feel like anything and everything I’ve had a chance to do is straight from God and, you know, I feel really blessed. You know, He’s the most important thing in the world, and faith certainly is a big part of my life. And something I hope people, upon listening to my music, will always be able to see in me and know that that’s important to me.”

Block concurs, explaining further that Sierra’s faith and family support have allayed any concerns he had about the young girl having too much thrown at her too soon. “She’s so grounded in Christ, her Bible goes where she goes. She does have good family support; they’re not stage parents. Some stage parents blow smoke and tell a kid how great they are. They don’t do that. They go, ‘Well, you sounded kind of nervous today.’ They’ll just flat out tell her. So it’s good to have people like that in your life, that will say, ‘Everybody thought you were really good, but you weren’t that good.’ And I think she’ll maintain a good sense of direction, especially being anchored in Christ.”

Then there’s the Sierra Hull Bluegrass Festival in Byrdstown, this year’s being the sixth annual, set for September 13. The county seat of Pickett County, eight miles south of Albany, KY, and 12 miles northeast of Alpine, TN (the closest large city is Knoxville, TN, 92 miles to the southeast), Byrdstown had a 2006 population of 880 and welcomes a steady influx of visitors to enjoy its bountiful recreational opportunities (notably bass fishing) centered on Dale Hollow Lake (the one that submerged Cordell Hull’s home town when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Dale Hollow Dam in 1943, and from which an angler snared the world’s largest bass to date, an 11-pounder). But really, as Sierra notes, there’s not much else going on. So when someone proposed mounting a bluegrass festival to draw in some more tourists, the Hull family was queried as to the specifics of festivals—Sierra being an old hand at these events—and then learned it was going to be named after Sierra.

Trouper that she is, the lass has taken her responsibilities to the festival seriously. She laughs when asked if she’s there every minute, like Jerry Lewis at his MD Telethons. “Umm, I’m there as much as possible,” she answers cautiously. “I try to be there as early as I can in the day, and I definitely I know I’m usually one of the last ones to leave. It’s a long day but it’s fun. It’s a nice little festival, and I think it’s good just in general, regardless of what they call it. Just that they have a bluegrass festival here, that’s cool to me. Considering how small Byrdstown is, it’s good to give the people here a dose of bluegrass every now and then.”

Giving people anywhere “a dose of bluegrass” is Sierra’s aim, both short- and long-term. The celebrity that comes with her acclaim is of little or no interest to her. Being accepted and acknowledged for her musical artistry clearly is the be-all and end-all of her raison d’etre. She also recognizes she’s in a unique position of being of an age where she can reach young people of her generation and perhaps be a positive inspiration.

“Well, I feel like as long as God will allow me to keep doing what I’m doing and that’s what He wants for me, to play music and make that my career, and hopefully have people enjoy what I do, then that’s what I hope to be doing from now till I’m 80 years old, if I can. I love playing music; I can’t think of one single thing I’d rather do. That may sound like something I’d say in any interview but seriously, I cannot think of another thing I would want to do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I really just hope that I can be playing music and still loving it, and you know, just finding my voice in the music, finding whatever I can call my own. I’m just trying to be me and hopefully be of some good influence. And if I can inspire somebody to want to play music or sing, to me that’s awesome. I love that. I hope I can be of some inspiration to some young person to really get the bug and try to play music, find a love for it, or something.”

Not the least of Sierra’s obligations at present is her schooling. She’s a junior at Picket County High School and intends to graduate, at which point she’ll decide whether college is in her immediate or far future, if at all. She tours throughout the school year, but selectively, only two or three days a month. But she’s disdained home schooling, preferring to stay up and catch up while integrating music and school into a demanding schedule. Needless to say, her classmates notice.

“It’s funny, people will laugh and say, ‘Oh, look, Sierra’s at school today.’ Because so often I am missing a whole lot of school sometimes to do what I am doing. But I can’t really, at this point in my life, just quit what I’m doing and go tour full time or something, even though that would be such a blast and I’m sure I would love every minute of it. I have to work around a school schedule, and I realize a lot of kids my age who are into music tend to be home schooled or do some kind of tutored program. But I go to a really small school anyway; there’s about 200 kids in my high school, so it’s really tiny, and where I live here is a really small place. I enjoy going to school—it can be a pain sometimes, and believe me, I can’t wait to get out! I can’t wait to get out and really be able to concentrate on music and do my thing, hopefully. But at this point, I’ve made it this far, I can go another year; I can do this.” (Yes, she expects to play at her senior prom, too.)

A sense of self, a selflessness, and a solid moral grounding are the attributes Block sees as the essentials for her blossoming as an artist. She’s coming from the right place, he notes, “and that’s one of the reasons God’s gonna bless the living daylights out of her. If He’s gonna continue to do so, she’ll stay in the right direction. We had a lot of conversations when we were making the record. I’d be doing something to the audio and she’d all of a sudden ask the question and we’d start talking for half an hour, just about whatever topic, trusting God, not getting your self-worth through music, getting it from Christ. It was good, it was really good. She’s real open to hearing; there’s a humility about it where she listens. Doesn’t have the attitude that she already knows it all. She’s got a real respectful feel about her.”

Of Cordell Hull a biographer noted: “…almost shy in manner, earnest and sincere in thought and deed, Hull had the power that comes to one who is thoroughly convinced of the rightness of his political and economic policies for peace and justice, is capable of defending them against all comers, and unwearying in his efforts to give them practical form.”

Change the political attributes to musical ones, and the description is a good fit for the statesman’s mandolin playing kinsman who’s stepping into the national arena before she can even vote.

Must be in the blood.


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