In a year when she made her Rounder Records debut, is playing Nashville’s most hallowed halls of country music, and finally became an identifiable name to standing-room-only Americana audiences in the United States and beyond, life seemingly can’t get much better for Sierra Ferrell.
If only those damn Studio3 wireless headphones she paid good money for would finally start working. In Lexington, Kentucky, hours before playing a sold-out show at the Burl on 9 December, the West Virginia native now based in the Music City introduced herself for a phone interview with four worrisome words: “Can you hear me?”
If that’s the worst thing that will happen to Sierra Elizabeth Ferrell in 2021, the unpredictable, unconventional musician who has turned country and Americana music on its ear can be tickled pink to declare this the wildest and wonderful time of the year for her.
A candid conversation that lasts more than an hour is interrupted by enough spotty cellphone reception that her next new song should be called “Can You Hear Me Now?” Yet Ferrell, battling a head cold, patiently and gladly answers every question ahead of a soundcheck at the Burl, which offers video games and arcade games for customers and bunk beds for visiting artists. Along with providing a few juicy revelations (Diplo, anyone?), she covers a budding career that’s finally blossoming after releasing a breakout album aptly titled Long Time Coming, looks back on the strikingly scenic path to get there, and looks toward a future that should be full of surprises.
Like the headphones she quickly abandons for this interview, Ferrell contends she’s “just figuring things out” during a major headlining tour throughout America followed by her first gig at the historic Ryman, supporting Old Crow Medicine show on 30 December. “Even though I’m doing what I love and stuff, it’s still work. And just figuring out how to wrangle the road and still be mentally stable,” she frankly offers with a laugh that punctuates many of her comments on this day.
Her last show before a two-week holiday break took place Sunday (12 December) in Paducah, Kentucky. Ferrell kindly went to social media asking people planning to attend to donate household items for “the community of Mayfield,” after devastating tornadoes throughout the area, Kentucky and five other states destroyed countless residences and structures, with the death toll expected to exceed 100.
Thankfully, she’ll be able to return to the comforts of home for a few days after squeezing into a Ford van and sharing driving duties with her bandmates during the summer and fall. The Ryman show will follow about a month after her Grand Ole Opry debut that she calls “memorable forever”, but these next two weeks will be more like a working vacation. Along with the short stay in Nashville, where the restless heart has lived about four years, there’s a trip to Los Angeles to “hang out with some friends and just hang out on the beach and work with a couple of other people out there, and then I’m gonna go to Hawaii and try to get some writing done.”
Any hope her West Virginian mother could spend time in paradise for the holidays disappeared since “she can’t even get the [COVID-19] vaccine because she’s got too many issues,” according to Ferrell, who feels reassured knowing, “She’s happy. She’s at home all the time. She’s doing good, though.”
Planning to meet during that time with “a couple of people” to see “what creative juices we get flowing,” Ferrell adds, “I don’t really wanna [reveal] yet who I’m working with.”
Who knows what else is in store for this country chameleon with the potential to change the tune of traditional roots music while spreading faith, trust, and a bit of pixie dust wherever she goes. After establishing herself with an enthralling mix of hillbilly twang, Appalachian folk-blues, and retro-metro swing while belting out songs like a long-lost descendent of Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, or Brenda Lee, Ferrell surely will keep the Music City guessing. But expect her rich backstory already filled with intrigue, surprises, and a tenacious search for success to be continued. Because at the age of 33, this free-as-a-bird spirit has worked too hard to be called an overnight sensation.
Revelation No. 1: For an artist known for stating, “Life is too short to be in a box,” Ferrell provides this shocker when asked who’s on her wish list of collaborators.
“I feel like I’ve been kind of finding people along the way,” she maintains. “I’m gonna be working with Diplo,” the A-list Los Angeles-based producer, DJ and recording artist whose collaborators have included pop icons Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears among many others. “I wouldn’t have thought of that. I think that’s fucking awesome. We might come up with something amazing. So I’m really excited.”
Asked if the project scheduled for today (14 December) is in the studio, Ferrell discloses, “Yeah, I’m not 100 percent sure what to expect. Maybe he’s got like a little, like a studio or something that we’re gonna have some time to go in.” Stay tuned.
Discovering a Band Aid
Once describing herself as possessing a “country heart but a jazz mind,” Ferrell laughs after I tell her she seems more like an old soul with a punk rocker’s passion. Repeated listens to Long Time Coming and seeing what I considered the best showcase at AmericanaFest in September led to that conclusion, especially knowing she embraces a wide variety of musical styles, including bluegrass, techno, goth metal, and razzmatazz jazz.
Asked about her evolving musical tastes and development that began as the lone daughter and middle child among three kids in Charleston, West Virginia, Ferrell pauses a few seconds before replying.
“Well, there’s many, many, many answers to that at different chapters and periods of mine. Which is really wild to think about,” she states. “Just like how many different chapters we all live and how sometimes the pages get burned or torn out, and you kind of leave gaps of them.”
Yet, it all comes down to one basic component found in every American home, whether the family is rich or poor — the AM/FM radio. Though she previously mentioned her grandfather listened to gospel and old-time country music, Ferrell stayed away from that and bluegrass while tuning in to “Electric 102.7” radio as a child. “I liked pop music and R&B and ’90s singles era,” she shares.
Ferrell was about five or six years old when her father left the family home, turning his wife Dale Ann into a single mom raising Sierra, oldest child Robert Ferrell and youngest son Aaron. Reverting to her maiden name, Dale Ann Miller and her two grown sons, now both married, still live in West Virginia, while Sierra’s dad also is nearby. “They spend the holidays together now,” Ferrell reports. “And my brother [Robert] has [two] kids, so I don’t have to worry about that. I just feel like grandparents love having little kids. That helps give another layer to life to help keep it not so miserable.” (laughs)
Also finding it funny to confess she was “was probably a little shit” as a student, Ferrell adds, “There’s periods where I was just quiet. Just trying to do my homework. And just put my earbuds in and listened to music.” She recalls attending six elementary schools before “I went to one middle school — zinger!” — and three high schools — South Charleston, Capital, and George Washington. A two-time high school dropout, she finally called it quits as a senior at GW and earned her GED.
In a family without “the money to have the cool things,” Ferrell grew up relying on a “pretty intense” imagination while playing outside a lot with dolls and creating stories that “I guess kind of really helped me in my writing.” She found her calling while singing in the school choir and playing clarinet in the school marching band. “That’s the thing about living, too, is like every little bit counts. I was in choir when I was little, like forever, in every grade. Any little bit helps,” she proclaims. “I just think that’s why music programs are really important. I did it for fun, but I loved it. But it was constantly every day. Music has always been in my life. And I never knew I was going to use it to be where I am today as a career. That program needs to be there.”
Revelation No. 2: Dale Ann, who liked listening to Vince Gill, 10,000 Maniacs, Alanis Morissette and Stevie Nicks on the radio, almost named her daughter after a song. A frequent customer at a South Charleston bar that no longer exists, she occasionally brought 7-year-old Sierra to perform Shania Twain songs. Ferrell proves she still remembers the words by singing a couple of lines to “Man I Feel Like Woman” over the phone, then mentions the fate of two couples that watched her as a kid perform “You’re Still the One” at their weddings. “Oh my God! They’re both divorced,” she shrieks.
If it wasn’t for Dale Ann’s love of the Sierra Nevada mountains where she once lived, Sierra could be known today as Rhiannon or Roxanne Ferrell. Mom’s alternative choices for her daughter’s name maybe served as a reminder of two hit songs from the ’70s by Fleetwood Mac and the Police, respectively. “Rhiannon … that’s a cool name,” Ferrell attests. “But I’m really glad I’m Sierra. … Roxanne? Whoa!”
Ferrell really relates to “Years”, the John Anderson cover song she and Tim O’Brien worked on recently for a project to honor the 66-year-old country singer-songwriter who has escaped death after struggling with a number of health issues. So much so that she suddenly (and soulfully) croons memorable lyrics from the opening verse:
“It’s amazing,” Ferrell tenderly points out about the song to her one-person audience who’s immediately sold on her all-too-brief rendition. “… I just love it. It makes me think of being a kid again because I listened to John Anderson a lot. You know, like the black sheep of the family and like flakin’. ‘Wild and Blue’ [the title track from his 1982 album] is so good. I love that song.”
Perhaps “Years” connects so emotionally because she feels dissatisfied with parts of her own early life. “I’m not as close with my family as most people,” she discloses. “I talk to them, but I just felt like we’ve lost a connection. I had to kind of get out and do my thing. I just found my own path, just like they all found their own path. We still kind of keep in touch. I talked to my mom the other day, and my brother reached out to me. I think he’s going to be [in Tennessee] the time I’m there, and we’re going to get lunch.”
Without going into specifics, Ferrell was nearing mid-20 age when she decided to leave home (around 2012 is her best guess) because “there just really wasn’t much for me. Just trying to get into a more positive headspace. There were people who were toxic for me.”
Her mission was to leave West Virginia behind in search of adventure on the open road — whether it involved hitchhiking, riding on freight trains, busking on city streets, living in a van near the ocean in Seattle, or playing washtub bass in New Orleans — was twofold, she explains now. Not only did it involve the nomadic need to explore, but it also began an unrelenting quest to find “my musical partner, my musical people.”
On her journey, Ferrell met like-minded transients, playing in bands such as Ladies on the Rag and the Cowpokes. Asked to single out her craziest moment during that period, she chose a freight train trip that ended in an Asheville, North Carolina, railyard, with about a dozen fellow travelers who escaped the clutches of a railroad “bull” (security patrol officer). They ran miles through “giant cornfields” only to be “rewarded with kindness” from strangers who offered them food and drink. “Sometimes you’ll go through hell, and it’ll be made up for by people’s kindness and also by being somewhere beautiful, like in nature,” she surmises.
By 2016, Ferrell had recorded and co-produced two full-length albums — Pretty Magic Spell and Washington by the Sea (with a much speedier version of Long Time Coming’s “The Sea”) — that were self-released digitally in 2018 and 2019, respectively. And with the help of Lost Dog Street Band’s Benjamin Tod, she began making music videos for GemsOnVHS director Anthony Simpkins. Early versions of Long Time Coming songs like “Jeremiah”, “In Dreams”, and “Silver Dollar” can be heard there.
Yet a series of Honky Tonk Tuesday Night performances at American Legion Post 82 in Nashville around that time eventually led her to meet fiddler (and future co-writer) Nate Leath and Rounder Records’ Gary Paczosa not long after her move to the Music City.
“[Gary] started coming to my shows and was saying, ‘I’m going to get you signed.’ Initially, I was in a band where there were more islandy vibes,” Ferrell recollects. “It was really cool ’cause Gary was like, ‘Every other time I see you, you’re doing something completely different.’ I guess [discussions] went on for a year, and then one day [in August 2019], it happened. I had a few interviews and talked to Gary and [Rounder President] John Strohm. And here we are.”
At the time of the announcement, Strohm said, “There’s a timelessness about Sierra’s singing and writing voice that sets her apart from so many rising talents in Nashville and beyond.”
With that deal done, it was time to make a record — then deal with the pandemic.