Teen Sierra Hull Is Turning Heads in Bluegrass

At Age 16, She's Competing With Her Heroes for the IBMA's Mandolin Award

Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus aren’t the only teenagers grabbing headlines with their music. When 16-year-old Sierra Hull makes her rounds at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Nashville this week — and she’ll be everywhere — she can look back on a year that saw the release of her first major album, her nomination as the IBMA’s mandolin player of the year and a well-publicized tour of Japan.

The nomination is particularly gratifying to her since it ranks her with four of her mandolin heroes: Sam Bush, Doyle Lawson, Ronnie McCoury and Adam Steffey.

“I really didn’t expect to make it to the Top 5, not with all those guys,” she tells CMT.com by cell phone as her mother speeds her to yet another appointment.

Her album, of course, is still the big news in her life, even though it came out in May. Released on Rounder Records, the album is called Secrets and is co-produced with Ron Block of Alison Krauss’ Union Station band. Block drafted a boatload of bluegrass stars to contribute their own distinctive sounds to the record. Among these were his fellow bandsmen Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales and Jerry Douglas, as well as guitarist Tony Rice, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Dennis Crouch.

Krauss, who long ago took Hull under her wing and first got her a guest spot on the Grand Ole Opry, even suggested songs for the album, Hull says. Even so, she and Block picked the ones she finally recorded.

“I probably found about half of them, and then he and I found the other half together,” Hull reports. “I spent a couple of months prior to making the final decisions, calling songwriters and e-mailing people and having them send me demos.” She wrote two of the 13 cuts and co-wrote a third.

One song, River Rutherford and Gordie Sampson’s “The Hard Way,” Hull snagged from the Keith Urban album Be Here.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t Hull’s first CD. When she was 10, she put out an album titled Angel Mountain on her own label. And it was strong enough that she’s still selling it. “It’s a lot easier for me to sell that record now that I have a new one,” she admits.

Hull, who’s also a fine guitar picker, began playing mandolin when she was 8.

“Thinking back, I never remember feeling like it was something that was extremely hard for me,” she says. “I feel like I probably learned quickly, but a lot of the reason for that was because … I put a lot of hours into it. I just loved to play.”

As she was learning to play, her parents were also introducing her at bluegrass festivals.

“The first year or two, I was mostly just going to festivals near my house [in eastern Tennessee],” she explains. “I hadn’t really been anywhere much. … I remember we took a trip to [the] IBMA [convention] for the first time when I was 9 years old.

“That year, I met Sam Bush for the first time and Ricky Skaggs. I actually got to play a little bit with Sam, but I just kind of got to say hello to Ricky. I met Earl Scruggs that year, too, which was really cool. But I didn’t have the chance to really sit down and play with any of them until I was 10 or 11.”

Ken Irwin, a founder of Rounder Records and the label’s chief talent scout, “discovered” Hull at an IBMA fest.

“He said that one year he kind of followed me around without me knowing it,” she says. “He would come to different things that I was at and watch me jam. He was keeping his eye on me a little bit. Then I met Ron Block and, through him, Alison. She asked me to come and play the Opry with her, and I think Ken saw that.”

Through Krauss and her manager, Denise Stiff, Hull and her older brother Cody were asked to take part in the 2004 Great High Mountain tour. Based on the wildly successful Down From the Mountain Tour, this edition featured such bluegrass and old-time music luminaries as Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Norman and Nancy Blake, the Whites, Ollabelle and the Reeltime Travelers.

During the tour, Hull and her mother visited Irwin and his wife, Donna, in Boston.

“We spent a few days with them and really built a good friendship,” she says. “So Ken had been talking to me a long time about doing a record. It took me a few years, but I’m glad I waited. I was 14 or 15 when I started getting serious about it.”

While her passion is bluegrass, Hull says her musical affections are all over the map.

“I try to listen to everything,” she says. “My mom and dad love ’80s rock, so I’ve heard a lot of that. I love gospel music, and I really like jazz. I’ve been listening to [guitarist] Django Reinhardt lately. It’s really cool stuff. I like Aerosmith and Def Leppard. I listen to country on the radio, older stuff like Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Don Williams — anything that’s well-produced [and] where somebody’s talent is for real.”

In late July and early August, Hull and her band, Highway 111, went to Japan for three weeks. It was her first trip abroad.

“I went over there because IBMA had asked me to put together a youth group for an exchange [program],” she explains. “We did some things with two other high school bands.”

As she heads toward graduation, Hull says she’s still mulling over her options. Career or college?

“This is definitely the year of decisions,” she observes. “I’m really thinking about what I want to do. I’m still not a hundred percent sure, but I’ll probably keep playing music for a while — just because the opportunity is there.”

And it is. Big time.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.