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Music Review: Sierra Hull – Secrets

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The music industry is constantly on the lookout for the next youthful prodigy, the fresh face that offers a tired genre new hope. And while bluegrass is unlikely to usurp rap and pop music as the nation’s preferred form of aural escapism, Sierra Hull – all of sixteen upon the release of her debut disc – may well represent a beacon of brightness for an otherwise marginal musical form.

Sierra plays mandolin, an instrument rarely heard outside the idiom, and does so with an uncanny facility and a musical intelligence seemingly far beyond her tender years. And she sings – forgive the cliché – with the voice of an angel.

Judging by the high-profile help she’s surrounded with here, she’s also as sweetly likable as she appears on the disc’s cover. How else to explain the presence of a veritable who’s who of acoustic instrumentation, including the likes of Ron Block and Dan Tyminski (both from Alison Krauss’ band) and living legends Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes, and Tony Rice. These esteemed gentlemen are the cream of the crop, yet they appear here as equals, content to provide accompaniment in support of Sierra’s surprisingly mature musical vision.

So Sierra adheres to bluegrass tradition in terms of instrumentation – guitars, fiddles, banjo, bass, and mandolin – drummers need not apply, thanks. But while there’s a timeless quality to her music that recognizes and respects the genre’s past, she approaches each tune with a delightful sense of discovery. And the effect is contagious – Sierra’s invigorating approach, the obvious joy she finds in making music in such rarefied company, is literally (cliché alert, but there’s simply no better way to describe it) like a breath of fresh air.

She’s also both an accomplished writer, judging by her credits on several tunes here, and a fiercely talented picker, as she so ably demonstrates on her own “Hullarious” (note the pun), where she tears off some downright dazzling leads on mandolin and guitar. Her voice is reminiscent of a young Ms. Krauss (a big fan, she helped bring this project to fruition), and having either Block or Tyminski adding harmony vocals simply adds to the heavenly quality.

Many young artists insist on tearing down barriers, in effect eliminating the old to make room for the new. But bluegrass, like blues, is arguably a near-perfect genre, it’s parameters providing more than enough space for both improvisation and innovation. Sierra Hull, still in her infancy as a performing artist, seems content to work within tradition, investing the music with the sheer sparkle of her personality – while playing is uniformly excellent as expected from such a cast, there’s a palpable and irresistible feeling of joyous wonder and delight permeating Secrets, a feeling that everyone involved was inspired anew.

The word is full of talented up-and-comers, but Sierra Hull is something special … I can’t remember the last time I’ve encountered a young artist of such accomplishment, yet shining with such enormous promise. Here’s hoping for much more from Sierra!

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