Agony and Ecstasy
With Grammy Award-winning Paczosa and Australian musician Stu Hibberd serving as co-producers, Ferrell recorded what she calls “the bones of the album” in only three days at Southern Ground and Minutia studio before the pandemic in 2020.
“It was amazing but also super-intense for me because I feel like the way I’ve recorded in the past, I just recorded whenever I wanted. (laughs) Like there wasn’t ever a timeframe,” Ferrell imparts. “I was just doing it to do it for fun. Then having to crunch it all together all at once was pretty intense, but it was also electrifying.”
Of the 12 songs Ferrell wrote that landed on Long Time Coming (Leath and mandolinist Oliver Bates Craven received some co-write credits), most of them go back with her for several years. They include the vaudevillian-gypsy romp “Why’d Ya Do It”, which started with a hook almost seven years ago, she thinks. Among the newer ones is the poignant ballad “Made Like That”, which also connected on a particularly personal level for Ferrell.
“That definitely has a lot of me in there,” she reveals. “A lot of my songs have a combination of me but also people who I’ve come in contact with and for some reason they kind of stuck out as someone of significance to me. And I kind of take a story and embellish it.”
One tune was created out of an indelible moment shared a couple of years ago by Ferrell and Leath, and she firmly believes, “If it wasn’t for Nate, ‘[At the] End of the Rainbow’ wouldn’t have happened.”
Driving along the interstate in West Virginia, they ran into a torrential downpour that quickly ended, followed by one of nature’s pleasant prizes — a precious rainbow. Without a place to stay after a show that night, the musicians met a kindly couple who let them sleep on their couch. “Listen, you have to write that song. The rainbow song,” Ferrell remembers Leath telling her about what eventually became the Dixieland jazz-flavored tune. Handed his guitar, “I’m like, ‘Oh, OK.’ And then I wrote it. Like right there.”
Leath (fiddle, acoustic guitar, mandolin) was one of the valuable session players on Long Time Coming that also included guest artists O’Brien (backing vocals), Jerry Douglas (dobro, lap steel guitar), Rounder’s Sarah Jarosz (banjo, octave mandolin, backing vocals) and Billy Strings (acoustic guitar), another rising singer-songwriter on the respected roots label’s roster. “I got to hang out with Sarah Jarosz and listen to her play,” reflects Ferrell, who contributes lead and backing vocals, electric guitar, saw, and toy piano on the album. “This was still in the heat of the pandemic. We were wearing masks and making sure we were far apart; everyone was washing their hands excessively. I didn’t really get to hang out with Jerry Douglas or Tim O’Brien. But I got to hear the aftermath, which was amazing, which I was happy about.”
Of course, when it wouldn’t vanish, COVID-19 turned the world upside down for many musicians, including Ferrell.
“We were just sitting around twiddling our thumbs and sat with [the record] more,” remembers Ferrell, who quarantined with two roommates at their small rental property in Nashville while touring dates were postponed or canceled. Before that, momentum seemingly was building as she earned a spot on a phenomenal bill (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Emmylou Harris, Trampled by Turtles, Dawes, and more) at the Avetts at the Beach bash hosted and headlined by the Avett Brothers in the Dominican Republic beginning the last week of February.
“We didn’t pick together, but just the fact that I was even at the same area with [Harris] was pretty cool,” Ferrell gushes. “When I saw her play live … she didn’t even finish the sentence, and I was just bawling. She was just so powerful. … I did get to chat with her backstage. And she’s really sweet. Just down to earth. Just chillin’.”
Inspired by that experience, Ferrell couldn’t help but be eager to get on the road again.
“I was mentally prepared,” she continues. “Because you have to get in a state of mind to go touring because it’s a lot of work. The pandemic just threw it all out of whack. It is a state of mind. You have to be mentally ready for this because, like, you will break.” (laughs)
Revelation No. 3: Prompted to present a deep, dark secret, Ferrell literally dares to go there after slightly hesitating. “I’m scared of the dark. I like nightlights and stuff in my room. (laughs) I try not to leave the big overhead light on. That’s a lot. That’s a classic, too. There’s so many people scared of the dark.”
Lighting Up the Stage
Once she returned to the road in 2021, there was no stopping Ferrell. Following the 20 August release of Long Time Coming, festival dates dominated her schedule. The Green River Festival in Massachusetts was held later that month, then major events like MerleFest and AmericanaFest in September, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Old Settler’s Music Festival in October, and her Grand Ole Opry debut on 26 November.
While some fans of old-time country criticized the album’s polished production on social media, Ferrell has been pleased with its overall reception. “The feedback has really, it’s been good,” she asserts. “You’ve always got some people that have something to say (laughs) that’s probably not very sweet, but I feel like there was more positivity than negativity. People fell in love with the way I sounded [on earlier recordings] or the way I sound in person. Because it’s rawer. But you know, it’s really fun to go in and let people take me to my potential, which I feel like this album has really helped make me shine.”
Ferrell lights up the stage, too, during concert and festival appearances. At Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley to cap a five-band night at AmericanaFest on 24 September, only a few hours after completing a brief Luck Mansion Sessions set at 3 Sirens studio, she stole the show. Her backing band included Josie Toney (fiddle), Austin Janey (upright bass), and Craven, filling in for touring mandolinist Joshua Rilko, who had COVID-19 at the time.
The enchantress’ late-night outing left her audience spellbound, and she earned my Best of the Fest Showcase award for the performance that included seven Long Time Coming numbers, starting with “Bells of Every Chapel”. Noting her face tattoos, fur hat, and prominent nose ring, I wrote in a festival wrap-up article for PopMatters, “She may look like a precocious kid, but Sierra Ferrell has the heart, soul, and voice of a seasoned country queen, and her old-timey but fresh-as-a-daisy songs are guaranteed to make you bend a knee.”
Ferrell finished the 45-minute set with the jaunty “Jeremiah”, a tune she was still working on while making a music video for GemsOnVHS in July 2018. Three years later, she and “Jeremiah”, the album’s first single, have been nominated for International Song of the Year at the 2022 UK Americana Awards that will be held in London on 27 January.
“I just love being a part of something!” exclaims Ferrell, who will attend the event and also is scheduled to perform. “The roster is really cool with the people in my category [including Brandi Carlile and Tré Burt]. … I just think it’s cool that people like my music that much.”
Ferrell also was delighted to hear that Long Time Coming is ranked No. 40 on PopMatters’ list of 75 Best Albums of 2021, saying, “That is awesome. I’m in it. I’m part of it. That’s so cool.”
Among the contributors compiling capsules for that list, Steve Horowitz wrote, “Ferrell’s music takes one on a journey where Tammy Wynette meets David Bowie, and they travel to the stars without having to leave the barn door open.” While Ferrell deserves to be overjoyed by all the adulation (Holler ranked Long Time Coming No. 7 on its Top 20 roots and countrified list), she sometimes wonders what the fuss is all about.
If anything has totally surprised the grateful crowd-pleaser about her breakthrough year, she modestly divulges, “Probably just the amount of people who were coming to my shows. It’s pretty intense. … The places are packed. It just blows my mind. Everyone is so heartfelt. They just want to share a piece of them with me because they think that I’ve shared with them. And that’s just so magical.
“A lot of people say that my music has helped them in a lot of ways. That, to me, makes life worth it ’cause I honestly don’t see sometimes what people see in me. And just to see it from that perspective helps me keep going.”
Revelation No. 4: When asked to share something about herself that most people don’t know, Ferrell replies, “I’m actually a heavy introvert. I’m super-introverted. I’m like an introvert-extrovert. It’s fucked up, honestly. (laughs) It leads to very awkward moments with people sometimes. … It seems like sometimes people are like, ‘You’re just so fun!’ Like nobody even notices. I’m like, ‘All right. I’ll just keep going then.’”
Always Thinking Ahead
If it’s possible to top the year she’s having, Ferrell isn’t thinking about herself, remarking, “I guess [if there’s] a cure for the coronavirus, that would top my year if it would totally go away.” (laughs) Meanwhile, she hopes her tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland in January goes as planned, acknowledging, “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that COVID doesn’t have another surge. I don’t think that’s going away any time soon. But I think we’re just going to get better with it.”
Professionally, her personal goals may not be momentous as curing COVID but nonetheless could astonish current fans expecting the Second Coming of Long Time Coming. “I want to be in a surf rock band,” she conveys without the slightest hint of a put-on. “Or just even more of a rock’ n’ roll band. I need to find the right people, the right players. And find a jazz band, so I don’t play an instrument. (laughs) I would like to be in a band sometime in the future where I don’t play an instrument.”
While specific projects planned for the New Year remain top secret, don’t be surprised if 2021’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, known for her trademark cowboy hats and colorful country chic wardrobe, has more than a few new snazzy outfits up her sleeve. Ferrell laughs when asked about becoming a fashion icon, responding, “Honestly, I like dressing up because it makes me feel more confident. I feel like if I feel really radiant and feel nice onstage, I can put on a better performance for people.”
Yet if she’s approached someday about starting a fashion line, “I’m not gonna rule it out. Life is wild,” she concludes. “… I feel like sometimes there’s a time in our life where we’re just like, ‘Well, I’m expected to be doing this, but not to be doing this,’ you know.”
So listen up, buckaroos. No matter what’s she’s doing or when and where she’s doing it, let her go. And hopefully, Ferrell will never again have to ask, “Can you hear me now?”
Revelation No. 5: For this wayfaring stranger who can’t seem to hunker down anywhere for too long, Ferrell is already pondering her next move, saying, “I’ve been thinking about Austin recently a bunch. I can maybe try to throw together a little honky tonk band there. And be a part of it and go out and dance and play honky tonk songs.”
How much more time this Nashville odyssey lasts likely depends on the status of her lease, which she thinks expires around April. “I can’t really just like abandon it. … I was thinking about going [to Austin] just to check it out for like a month [though the lone Texas stop on her busy 2022 tour schedule currently lists just Fort Worth on 20 February]. And still have my place [in Nashville] but just go and stay with a friend or something.”