Hull and Ellis: Bluegrass Mandolin

Sierra Hull
is a multiple time International Bluegrass Music Association award-winning mandolin player and songwriter. Born in Byrdstown, Tennessee, Sierra started playing mandolin at 8 years old when her grandmother gave her the instrument as a gift. Her dad showed her a few tunes and chords and she was soon expanding her knowledge of the instrument with the help of excellent local bluegrass musicians each week at jams near her hometown. By age 10, Sierra was entering regional music contests and released her first album, Angel Mountain. She was soon befriended by Alison Krauss–herself a former child prodigy–who took Sierra under her wing. In 2002, at age 12, Sierra signed with Rounder Records. Already a mainstay on the bluegrass festival circuit with her band Highway 111, Sierra’s style, while solidly rooted in tradition, proved equally inventive and expansive. Sierra’s next album, Secrets, was produced by Krauss and Ron Block for Rounder Records in 2008. She has since recorded four additional albums for the label, each featuring her critically acclaimed songwriting and instrumental and vocal mastery. In 2009, she became the first bluegrass musician to earn the Berklee College of Music Presidential Scholarship.

As part of the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program this year, Sierra will be teaching bluegrass mandolin to apprentice Wyatt Ellis, of Maryville, Tennessee. In Wyatt, Sierra sees an exceptionally skilled young musician, who, like her, has had his start under the tutelage of regional musicians met at festivals and music shows. At age 9, Wyatt started taking lessons from bluegrass veteran Roscoe Morgan, and was soon immersed in the technique of Bluegrass founder Bill Monroe. Wyatt was soon traveling to iconic East Tennessee venues like Wood and Strings Dulcimer Shop in Townsend, Rocky Branch in Walland, the Bradbury Center in Kingston, and the Ciderville Music Store in Claxton. Over the past year, Wyatt has also participated in online courses, workshops, virtual camps and Skype lessons with a variety of fine bluegrass mandolin players.

Of this opportunity, Wyatt says: “Sierra Hull is, quite possibly, the best mandolin player in the entire world. She began playing mandolin as a child, like me! I hope to improve all aspects of my playing by working with Sierra. I specifically hope that I can learn how to improve my dynamics, clarity and timing.”

For Sierra, the Apprenticeship program is a valuable opportunity to pass forward some of the music and life lessons she gained traveling a pathway not so different from that which Wyatt is now on. “There are many young musicians like Wyatt that continue to discover bluegrass and develop a passion for it, so I don’t think it’s endangered,” Sierra explains. “However, bluegrass has never been a mainstream form of music and the only way to truly keep the tradition alive is to share the music firsthand with the next generation.