Back in July 2016 I hosted Ron Block & Sierra Hull for a sell-out concert at Sheffield Greystones, one of only two smaller concerts that they performed while in the UK to play at a couple of major festivals. After the gig I interviewed Ron and Sierra for British Bluegrass News magazine. Here’s an edited version of that article in advance of our sold out show with Sierra Hull & Ethan Jodciewicz in Hepworth (Holmfirth) next week. Since this interview, Sierra has also been Grammy nominated for her album Weighted Mind.
Nashville veteran and world class banjoist/guitarist Ron is well known as a longtime member of bluegrass supergroup Alison Krauss & Union Station. Mandolin sensation, singer & songwriter Sierra is acclaimed as one of the finest young bluegrass/Americana artists in the USA. They sat down for a chat with me for British Bluegrass News magazine, about their various musical projects and balancing tradition with experimentation.
True North Music: Remind us how the two of you came to play together in a duo?
Ron: I first remember Sierra when I was standing watching a bunch of young people playing at IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association festival/showcase]. Then I heard someone walking up and in my mind I assumed it was a 21-year old six foot tall dude – then when I looked over I did that thing [mimes double take] where you look at a certain height and then look down. I had to adjust my gaze as it was a little 11 year old girl ripping it up on what looked like a giant mandolin.
Sierra: I’ve played with AKUS quite a bit doing various things that Alison [Krauss] invited me to do and since I’ve had my own band Ron has been nice enough to play some dates with me here and there when I needed somebody to come and play banjo. We’ve done a few things around Nashville, benefit shows and such, and then we’ve played together a ton in other settings, in various configurations for many years.
TNM: I know you’re both busy with your respective projects – Sierra with your duo/trio and Ron with Alison Krauss and Union Station, and a new solo record. Ron, I understand that release has been nominated for an IBMA award this year. It sounds like you had a lot of fun with an all-star cast!
Ron: Yes, AKUS is still my main band but I’ve come out with several solo records, the latest being a bluegrass instrumental record, Hogan’s House of Music. It was a musical adventure, I just called all my friends and if their dates were open, most were completely glad to come and play. I wanted to play lead guitar as well as banjo, so Dan Tyminski and Clay Hess played rhythm guitar. Sierra played mandolin on some of the stuff, and Sam Bush and Adam Steffey played mandolin as well. Bass players…Barry Bales played on a lot, and Mark Fain and Byron House played on some. Great fiddle players….Alison Krauss, Stuart Duncan, Tim Crouch. Who am I missing? Oh, Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes played on it too! I was really happy with how it came out. I was doing my best to emulate two of my favourite records, which are Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt and Scruggs and Big and Country Instrumentals by Jimmy Martin.
TNM: Talking of the IBMA, I know you’ve been nominated for several awards too, Sierra – Mandolin Player of the Year [edit – Sierra won this IBMA award in late 2016], Song of the Year and Album of the Year. I know you ended up working with Béla Fleck on the Weighted Mind album – how was that experience?
Sierra: I felt for quite some time that I needed to do something different. I went in the studio, producing myself at first and ended up working with a great engineer Vance Powell in Nashville, but I think at that time I almost opened myself up to too much feedback from too many people. We recorded six tracks and we ended up scrapping the whole thing. I was playing a lot of guitar on it and it was much different from what subsequently became Weighted Mind. When I decided I needed a producer, I talked to Alison [Krauss] about it and she said “You know who I think would be a good producer for you? There’s nothing musically this person doesn’t understand and I think he would be a great vocal producer – Béla“. I hadn’t thought of him because I knew this record needed to be more about the lyric and the songs. Everybody thinks of me as this mandolin player that also sings, but I wanted to make a record that was more about Sierra, the artist. Not that I’ve ever really felt the need to shred a bunch of mandolin…but this was the first time I really felt like I had something I needed to say, and I needed to get these songs out there.
Fast forward a month or two, I was at IBMA and Béla tapped me on the shoulder – just the man I needed to talk to! We met up after that and I played him some tracks we had already recorded. They were recorded well and everybody played great, but Béla helped me see that I was almost enjoying the sounds that everyone else was making so much that I wasn’t giving myself much room to shine through. It’s easy to do when you just love making music with other people. I grew up playing in band situations, bluegrass bands with full instrumentation. That’s wonderful and it can be incredibly empowering to play with great musicians around you, but it can also make you not step up to the occasion and ask “what can I do to make some music that sounds good, just by myself?” To have somebody like Béla say that to me changed my whole musical view. It was really encouraging and eye opening to have that input from someone I really admire.
TNM: It’s great that you’ve been getting recognition for the album but have you had any backlash when trying to broaden your style beyond more “traditional” bluegrass? Do you find yourself being pigeonholed when you’re trying to develop musically?
Sierra: I think I was a little fearful of that and at times I might have put myself in a box. Not that I ever thought, even on my previous albums, that hardcore traditionalists would find my music super-traditional. I’ve never been that kind of an artist anyway but I’ve always been surrounded by that kind of instrumentation and I grew up loving that music, so maybe I boxed myself in a little bit accidentally.
Ron: You can’t help it because it’s part of the bluegrass thing, at least when I was growing up. When you’re playing this music and you have tradition-loving people (and don’t forget I love bluegrass like Flatt and Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers and all that) it’s very easy to get the idea that there’s a right kind of guitar and there’s a right way to play rhythm and a right kind of pick to use and so on. When you get all these right ways to do it that also implies there’s all these wrong ways to do it. Then what you’re doing is cutting out the spirit of play and experimentation that created bluegrass in the first place. Inherent to me in the spirit of bluegrass is the spirit of growth and experimentation. But that growth and experimentation is anchored by tradition. So…if you love tradition, like Sierra does, like I do, then you experiment with that and you individualise the expression. Now you have some people that say “I just wanna play the same songs that Bill Monroe played.” ….and that’s fine, but it doesn’t make the music grow. Then you have other people that say “I don’t care what Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs did, I just wanna play what I think and feel is bluegrass.” Well, then you’re disconnected from the roots. So there’s this kind of paradox around what the music is – a connection to rootedness and at the same time a spirit of joy, playfulness and experimentation. And you have to combine those two things in order to make bluegrass what it is.
TNM: What’s coming up for you both in the next little while?
Ron: I’m putting out a record with Jeff Taylor, a piano player with the Time Jumpers. That will be a record of hymns with a Stephen Foster-ish feel, pretty melodies, with banjo, acoustic guitar and fiddle. Other than that I’ll be doing more recording and I’ll also be performing at IBMA with the Soggy Bottom Boys [Mike Compton, Stuart Duncan, Barry Bales and Pat Enright] in September.
Sierra: I’m still touring like crazy through to the end of the year with my band, a lot of festivals and theatre performances, and I’ll be at IBMA too [as well as being nominated in several award categories, Sierra hosted the 2016 event alongside Dan Tyminski]
TNM: Thank you both so much for talking to us – we hope to see you back in the UK soon!
We’re so delighted that Sierra chose to play for us again this year on her 2017 UK tour with duo partner, the phenomenal double bassist Ethan Jodciewicz! Our concert at Hepworth Village Hall has been sold out for weeks, so thanks to all the lucky people who booked tickets – see you there on Friday 30th June!
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