In music, time is important. It even has a time “signature,” with each song assigned a specific number of beats per measure. There’s 3/4, which offers the lilting sway of the waltz, and 6/8, which can lend a certain gravitas à la “House of the Rising Sun.” Of course, there’s 4/4, also known as common time, the darling of songwriters in everything from bluegrass to funk.
In life, time is key, too. It’s steady and dependable, yet it has an odd way of seeming to stand still or fly by depending on the mood. There’s the peculiar phenomenon in which time seems to accelerate with each passing year, leaving me, for one, with the curious suspicion that tomorrow I just may wake up in my bed a little white-haired old woman, wondering where my life has gone.
For virtuosic mandolinist Sierra Hull, life’s metronome has been set to double time since she was knee-high to a grasshopper, when she picked up a mandolin as a child and never looked back.
“I’ve been going so fast for so many years,” she reflected on a sunny Wednesday morning in Telluride. “I’ve known I wanted to play music since I was eight years old.”
Growing up in a small, rural Tennessee town of about 900 residents, she was steeped in the country music of bluegrass, folk and the traditional spirituals she heard in church. In one of her earliest memories, the perhaps four-year-old Sierra sat perched in her mother’s lap as her mother taught her to sing “He’s still working on me.”
“I always just thought of singing as a casual thing, just a way of life, from my granny to my great aunt,” Hull recalled of her early childhood filled with church hymns and the music played by her great uncle Junior on the fiddle, mandolin and guitar. Nobody in her family was a professional musician, nor had aspirations to be. It was just a part of daily life, a way to worship and a way to have fun.
A few years later, her father decided to learn to pick a few tunes on the guitar and the mandolin, encouraging her older brother to pick up an instrument as well. Seeing her brother and dad playing, the young Sierra was determined not to be left out.
“I was just the annoying little sister who wanted to do everything that he did,” she said of her big brother. “I worshipped the ground he walked on, so I wanted to play something, too.”
Christmas arrived, and the now eight-year-old Sierra received not a mandolin, but a fiddle on Christmas morning. However, her granny had unwittingly purchased the already petite child an adult-sized instrument, which the young girl could not manage. Since the violin, which is commonly referred to as a fiddle in folk styles of music, is tuned to the same notes as the mandolin, her father decided to start her off with a couple of tunes on the mandolin until she could get a smaller violin.
He taught her the old folk song “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” a classic tune and often one of the first learned in the bluegrass repertoire, and the young Sierra was hooked. Perhaps it was a sneaky sleight of hand craftily dealt by fate that day when her grandmother brought home the wrong-sized fiddle.
“I picked up the mandolin, and I decided then and there that’s what I was going to do with my life,” she said.
By age 10, she was performing on the legendary stage of the Grand Ole Opry with her hero Alison Krauss, and by 12 she’d played at Carnegie Hall. By the time she finished school, she was already a full-fledged touring musician, performing basically nonstop.
And that’s what she continued to do until the spring of 2020, when a global pandemic brought the world to its knees. Hull had just released her latest album, “25 Trips,” on which she branched out from her bluegrass roots to focus on her singer-songwriter side, and had just embarked on a whirlwind tour to promote the album. Suddenly, in just a matter of weeks, 40 or 50 shows had been canceled. Hull returned to her home in Nashville, staring down the barrel of an unknown duration of free time for the first time in her adult life.
She laughed, recalling the title track of that record, in which she sings, “Hello, time, will you slow down? Hello, are you listenin’? If you hear me, will you slow down?”
“I guess I got my wish,” she said with a chuckle.
The time at home, however, was welcome, as she found herself revisiting the old musical loves of her childhood, creating just to create without the pressures of projects or busy schedules.
Time, despite the endless human attempts to control it, manage it and squeeze every last drop out of it, proved yet again that it still had the upper hand. As the weeks of lockdown stretched into months, Hull embraced it, finding joy in her newfound perspective on what it was like to have some quiet time.
“We’re given the time we’re given, and we all do our best with it,” Hull said. “We’re all trying to just do the best we can, to be the best version of ourselves. But this past year has also really taught us that there’s so much we don't have control over. You kind of have to just give your heart to whatever it is in your life that you're trying to do, and then try not to stress too much about how it plays out.”
Now 29, time feels different for Hull than it did when she was first bursting onto the bluegrass scene, a respected musician yet still a teenager. She’s loved the wild ride afforded by following her dreams and her passion for music, grateful for her roots in traditional bluegrass and for following musical explorations to new horizons. Now, she feels ready to find a symbiosis of the two, all while remembering to hold a bit of the stillness of the past year in her heart while stepping back into a world already furiously revving its engines.
“I think I'm a little bit of a workaholic sometimes, though it comes from a good place, of passion and love for what I do,” she said, smiling.
Picturing herself as a little white-haired lady at the end of a long and fruitful life, however, she wants her 29-year-old self to remember to really savor the journey.
“Just to remember to stop and smell the roses,” she said. “And maybe to not be so hard on yourself. There’s a part of me that knows that, but there’s also a side of me that can be very driven and focused. There can be this feeling that you’ve never arrived. It’s always like, ‘What’s next?’ But it’s also the beautiful thing about it, too, about music, that desire to grow.”
After all, tempos change with every song and time offers no guarantees. The music plays on, so we’d better sing along.
“We never know how much or how little time we’re going to be given, or how it’s all going to pan out,” she said. “It’s important to remember that bigger picture, to stop and enjoy it along the way.”