Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bluegrass prodigy Sierra Hull debuts at Newport

For me, one of the exciting acts at Newport Folk was the debut appearance of Sierra Hull and HIghway 111. A 15-year-old mandolin and vocals bluegrass prodigy, Hull has been getting rave notices in festival appearances around the country, including at MerleFest this year.

I've been so impressed with some of the other youth bluegrass talent out there including The Lovell Sisters from Georgia and Sarah Jarosz from Austin. This would be my first chance to see another teen sensation that people are buzzing about.

It turns out that Hull is very much in the mold of Alison Krauss, who was not only heading the bill here this year but has a long history at Newport, going back to her own debut at age 14. You never know how careers develop, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Sierra Hull headlining festivals 10 and 20 years from now.

[Photo: Sierra Hull at Newport's Waterside Stage]

Hull played with a tight band of young bluegrass pickers, including her brother Cody on guitar and high tenor harmonies. Beyond her obvious musical gifts, what impressed me about young Ms. Hull was her stage presence and band arrangements. She has more than raw talent but has begun to package herself for future stardom.

She performed a mix of originals and covers that displayed a knowledge and respect for traditional bluegrass. In a few cases, her versions of songs about lost love and other mature themes seemed slightly out of place coming from so young an artist.

I got a chance to chat with her after her set. She seemed down to earth and not at all full of herself. She still goes to the public high school in her small home town of Birdstown TN. She gives much of the credit for her success to her father, who got her started, and Alison Krauss, who has taken her under her wing.

She is especially excited about her forthcoming new album, produced by Ron Block of Alison Krauss's band and including contributions from most of the members of Union Station, the progressive bluegrass band Mountain Heart, and other musical greats such as Tony Rice.

The record is due in January. Look for it to make an impact in the bluegrass world, and expect to see more of Hull on major stages next year.

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