Sierra Ferrell 2021
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Rounder Records

Sierra Ferrell’s Assured Debut Looks to Mid-20th Century Music for Inspiration

Sierra Ferrell’s debut album, Long Time Coming, encompasses a wide array of mid-20th-century styles. However, she leans towards classic country and roots music.

Long Time Coming
Sierra Ferrell
Rounder
20 August 2021

The songs on Long Time Coming, Sierra Ferrell’s debut album, encompass a wide array of mid-20th-century styles. However, she leans towards classic country. That’s likely why, despite her official bio’s emphasis on Ferrell’s years traveling the country as a nomadic musician and playing everywhere from truck stops to rolling boxcars to busking on the streets, she ended up settling down in Nashville with a record deal from the rootsy Rounder label. Considering Rounder has spent a lot of its energy in the 21st-century reissuing folk, country, and general Americana from the first half of the 20th-century, Ferrell fits in snugly on their roster.

Ferrell shows off her chops on a handful of tracks that take a run through familiar forms. “Jeremiah” is a plaintive bluegrass song with an upbeat arrangement. Jaunty fiddle, rollicking banjo, and steady acoustic guitar and bass provide the primary backing, while Justin Moses adds the distinctive twang of dobro leads and accents. Ferrell’s lyrics, though, are about the titular character and how he makes many promises to women that he doesn’t seem interested in keeping. The chorus makes a case for empowerment: “She’s gonna put you back on the shelf / She does better by herself.” The song also features an excellent closing coda with a dramatic slowdown that finishes it with a very different feel.

“Give It Time” is a classic cowboy love song, right down to the clip-clopping accompaniment, lush harmonized male backing vocals, and drawling fiddle solos. Ferrell even puts a little more oomph into her West Virginia accent as she admonishes herself to let a broken relationship fade and stop beating herself up about it.

Long Time Coming even includes three different country waltzes, which have varying degrees of impact. “Bells of Every Chapel” is a Broadway musical-style love song with birdsong-like whistling, bouncy guitars, and a powerful vocal delivery from Ferrell. “West Virginia Waltz” might be a little too traditional. Ferrell tries to sell the sad story of her true love who died, but even the presence of Sarah Jarosz on backing harmonies doesn’t liven up the staid songwriting. Album closer “Whispering Waltz” works better, with a spare, open feel, accentuated by Jedd Hughes’ low, slow baritone guitar lines.

Ferrell is a little more interesting when she spends time on less familiar musical ground. The opener “The Sea” has a late 1940s/early 1950s jazz-pop feel. It has a wobbly singing saw, hollow body electric guitar, and steel guitar, giving the song watery effects. The minor key adds to the song’s mysterious feel. Ferrell loosens up with her vocals on this one, belting it out at times. The refrain includes the passage, “The waves / The waves / The waves / How they’re putting out my flames / Whooaaaaaaaa / That’s okay, I should be more tame.” That “whoa” is stretched out, silly, and surprising, and it’s one of the album’s most fun moments.

“At the End of the Rainbow” embraces Dixieland jazz, with prominent trombone and clarinet accompanying Ferrell like it was New Orleans in 1920. “Far Away Across the Sea” is an excellent approximation of mid-century Americans interpreting Mexican mariachi. Nylon guitar, woodblock percussion, and trumpets all give the song a great feel. Ferrell’s vocal energy matches the intensity of the rest of her band, making the track one of the album’s liveliest. “Why’d Ya Do It?” uses accordion, Latin percussion, and more hollow body electric guitar for a very effective tango-style track.

As a vocalist, Ferrell is top-notch. Her voice has a lot of body to it and just enough of a twang to make it easy for her to sell this variety of classic styles she’s trying out. As a songwriter, Ferrell is off to a great start. She wrote or co-wrote every track on Long Time Coming and shows a lot of ability to shift through these different genres. Even on a simple ballad like “Made Like That”, she’s able to include a direct quote from “Country Roads, Take Me Home” without it coming off as facile. It probably helps that she’s a West Virginia native herself. This is a strong, assured debut album worth hearing for roots music fans.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters