Up-and-coming West Virginia-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Sierra Ferrell recently released her long-awaited debut, Long Time Coming. The twelve songs on the album, all of which are written or co-written by Ferrell, embody the fierce eclecticism and individuality of a musician and songwriter who utterly defies categorisation. The album also features a remarkable array of guest musicians including Billy Strings, Dennis Crouch, Jerry Douglas, Rory Hoffman, Jedd Hughes, Sarah Jarosz, Julie Lee, Justin Moses, Tim O’Brien and Chris Scruggs.
A lifelong singer, Ferrell got her start performing in a local bar when she was only seven years old. When she was in her early 20s, a chance encounter with a troupe of nomadic musicians inspired her to leave home and join them as they traveled across the country. After a few years spent busking on the streets of Seattle and New Orleans, she decided to make the move to Nashville, where she soon began taking the stage at festivals like At the Beach and AmericanaFest. She’s also a favourite figure on Australia’s alternative-country scene thanks to two appearances at Melbourne’s Out On The Weekend Festival and shows with C.W.Stoneking.
To get to know Sierra Ferrell a little better, we asked her to tell us about an album that changed her life.
Sierra Ferrell on ‘Nickel Creek’ by Nickel Creek
Because I’m from West Virginia, people think that I grew up in a log cabin, wearing overalls, chewing tobacco, and picking banjo on the front porch all day by the creek. Believe it or not, when I was a little girl, I only listened to ‘90s pop. I only knew what was on the radio and would sit and scan through the channels over and over. We didn’t have a TV – the radio became my TV. We were constantly moving from house to house, so the radio also became my friend, my security blanket, some shred of consistency within my turbulent childhood life.
In 2000, all you heard on the radio was lots of pop and a little Pearl Jam – I didn’t know there was anything else out there until one day on the side of a road – Mountain Rd. – in Charleston, WV. I got off the school bus and stumbled upon some CDs at the edge of the pavement. There was gravel mixed into them and the cases were all cracked. I brought them home and tested them out. None of them worked, except for two: Marilyn Manson and, more importantly, Nickel Creek. I was spellbound. There were stories and new emotions and personal conflicts and harmonies and these twinkly, bouncy, shimmery sounds that I soon learned to be mandolin and fiddle. I was 12 years old and had fallen in love with roots music for the first time.
The first three songs on Nickel Creek, Ode to a Butterfly, The Lighthouse’s Tale and Out of the Woods say it all. There is curiosity and despair, heartache and nature, beauty always struggling to break through. Much like the breakdown lane it came from, the album has a coarseness and rawness that suddenly made all of the pop music I had been so preciously dialing up between my little fingers seem grainy and paper thin. Nickel Creek was something I could hold on to. It seemed real to me, reassuring. Like a teacup or a shovel handle, the instruments were grounding, and I wanted to be grounded more than anything.
When I heard the string music on Nickel Creek for the first time, it harkened back to a part of me I had lost long before I was born. It also spoke to a part of me right then, in that moment, that was unconsciously tired of moving from home to home, school to school, stepdad to stepdad. It opened its arms as if to say, “Welcome child. Give us your pain.” It was a new way for me to look at and describe pain. The wooden instruments made it feel tangible, like I could reach out and touch it if I wanted to. Although it was a totally foreign sound to me, it felt familiar, like maybe I had finally found a real home.
That beat-up, roadside Nickel Creek CD sent me down the path that brought me to Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, The Carter Family, and so many others. I recently wrote a new song called Lighthouse. I don’t listen to Nickel Creek anymore, but influences come burbling up like tires in the ocean. And every now and again, when I want to feel a little less grounded, I’ll still rock 6-inch knee high Marilyn Manson boots.