How Celtic Connections star Hull moved on to new pastures
Sierra Hull found herself at a crossroads. Having grown up in public since the age of eleven, when she achieved the country and bluegrass holy grail of appearing on the Grand Old Opry radio programme, the mandolin virtuoso, singer and guitarist wanted to produce an album that showcased a direction that was different to the style that had helped her become established.
She was twenty-four, no longer the whizz kid the bluegrass audience had taken to their hearts, and was writing songs that were outside the bluegrass tradition. So she hired a studio, a top recording engineer and a group of hot session musicians and deciding to produce the sessions herself, laid down half a dozen of her new songs and ran into a storm of feedback.
“When I played the recording to people a lot of them said, Wow, this is cool and so different,” she says down the line from Nashville. “But then other people said I should do this or do that or whatever. I care what people think but you have to do what you feels right for you, what’s honest, and I got to the stage where I didn’t know what I thought and I had to say, Whoa, let’s take a step back from this.”
The resulting album, Weighted Mind, turned out to be very different indeed from what people might have expected. Although the songs were the same songs, it was also very different from the sessions Hull had self-produced, and the group she’ll be bringing to Celtic Connections, she says, might seem a bit strange on paper, being a trio of mandolin, double bass and saxophone.
“It leaves me quite exposed, I think, but in a good way,” she says, adding that the saxophonist, Eddie Barbash, is a keen student of old-time fiddle music and brings a lot of that style of music’s phrasing and tone to her songs.
The spare, stripped-down sound the group creates stems from the involvement in Weighted Mind of banjo master Bela Fleck. Hull’s friend and mentor, bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss had suggested she consider working with Fleck as her producer and when Hull played Fleck her original recording his assessment was that it was good … but.
“Bela put his finger on the problem very quickly,” says Hull. “It was supposed to be my record but I’d been so busy admiring what the musicians I’d hired were playing that, as Bela said, I’d left no room for me. After he listened to the recording, he said, can you sing me that song Compass with just you and your mandolin? So I did he said, Now, that’s much more intriguing. I can hear what the song’s about. I can hear the meaning. Let’s make a record like that.”
Hull’s back story is similarly intriguing. At the age of eight she decided that she wanted to play the violin. Her parents bought her one that Christmas but it was a full-size violin and too big for her. So her dad, who had recently acquired a mandolin, suggested she try that instead and since the two instruments were tuned alike, when they got her a smaller violin she’d know where the notes were.
She did eventually get a violin and played it for a while but by this time she had completely fallen in love with the mandolin.
“I’d play for hours and hours every day,” she says. “My dad would push me, just enough, into learning different things every day and then he got a guitar from my uncle, who lived right beside us and played music all day long, and he’d play with me. We played in church and it’s a short step from gospel music to bluegrass, and here I am.”
With her brother also playing guitar Hull was the star turn at local events and concerts around Byrdstown, the small Tennessee town where she grew up. At one gig they supported Mike Snider, a Grand Old Opry regular, and hearing Hull play, he invited her onto the famous radio show. Shortly afterwards, Ron Block, Alison Krauss’s long-time guitarist, heard Hull and told Krauss about her.
“Alison was my biggest hero right from the first time I heard her,” says Hull. “I used to draw pictures of us playing onstage together and the next thing I know, she phones my folks and asks if I can go and play the Grand Old Opry with her. I’d never even met her before and yet there we were playing on the biggest deal country radio show together.”
With Krauss’s encouragement and interceding on Hull’s behalf, the youngster followed her hero onto Rounder Records, the standard-bearer label for bluegrass and roots music generally, at the age of thirteen. Two albums later Hull was an established teenage touring attraction. Then something completely unexpected happened.
An email arrived from the Dean of America’s biggest music school, Berklee College in Boston, inviting Hull to go and study there.
“I hadn’t given a thought to going on to university or college from school,” says Hull. “I’d really set my heart on living in Nashville, where all my heroes lived and which, especially coming from Tennessee, is the music city. I come from a town of about nine hundred people, my parents aren’t wealthy and the idea of moving to a big city like Boston to live, with all the expenses that would involve was just completely alien to me.”
With a Presidential scholarship covering everything, she needn’t have worried about living expenses and again with Alison Krauss’s encouragement, she went off to study, not on the bluegrass course, as might be expected (she specialised in songwriting and music business), and not as a typical student either.
“I had these gigs booked through to the next spring and I thought, they’re not going to like the idea of me going off every weekend to play down in Virginia or wherever, but it turned out that they were okay with that,” she says. “So every Friday I’d grab a taxi to the airport, fly out and play a couple of gigs and then I’d be back, ready to start lessons on Monday morning. It was a bit of blur in the end and I wish I’d taken more time before I went to find out more about what I could get out of the experience. But coming from a small town where life is quite sheltered and everyone has much the same outlook, just being able to hang out with other young people who were serious musicians and came from all over the world was amazing.”
The Berklee experience didn’t bring about the change in Hull’s approach to her music but it did encourage her to express herself as a songwriter and think beyond the bluegrass tradition.
“Not that I’d written a whole lot of traditional-style bluegrass songs beforehand but the songs from Weighted Mind stretched me in a good way and then the more solo approach changed my musical world,” she says. “I worried about whether people would want to hear just me with minimal backing but I feel like I’m giving them honest music. It’s maybe quite dark and solemn at times but I think it can be uplifting too and it offers people an escape from the daily grind, takes them somewhere different for that hour or so we’re onstage.”
Sierra Hull plays the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow on January 26.
From The Herald, January 17, 2018.
Blazers gear up for 20th anniversary gig
It was only meant to last for four concerts but now Bruce MacGregor finds himself looking ahead to Blazin’ Fiddles’ 20th anniversary celebration at Celtic Connections with a mixture of enthusiasm, anticipation and surprise.
The surprise element comes not so much with Blazin’ Fiddles still being very much a thriving entity, with a recently released album, The Key, launched at the prestigious Kings Place venue in London last month. What has surprised MacGregor is his colleagues from the original line-up asking about rehearsals as they plan to mark the different stages of the band in the Celtic Connections concert, beginning with the current line-up playing The Key in its entirety and then being joined by old Blazers.
“In the old days we were lucky if we got a run-through with everybody present the night before the first gig of a tour,” says MacGregor, who combines his role as senior statesman in Blazin’ Fiddles with presenting BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk programme and running the Northern Roots festival on the family farm at Bogbain near Inverness.
“It shows just how much everybody is up for this get-together that they want to be sure of all the tunes, although nobody ever fell out with the band. People left for various reasons. Some of the guys had families, or businesses or both, and didn’t want to tour so much. For others it maybe wasn’t full-time enough. But there were never any musical differences and as someone said when we first talked about the reunion, once a Blazer, always a Blazer.”
The Blazers came into being after MacGregor became concerned about the perception he encountered of Scottish fiddle music being dead. He’d been over to the Valley of the Moon fiddle camp in California, which is run by one of Scotland’s fiddling greats, adopted Californian, Alasdair Fraser, and heard it suggested that no young people were coming through to continue the Scottish fiddling tradition. Back home, MacGregor would turn on the radio and hear fiddle music but it was all Cape Breton or Irish music.
“I knew there were great players my age who were playing the Scottish styles and accents they’d grown up with and I thought, why are we not promoting this better?” says MacGregor. “So, in 1998, I went in to see Alastair MacDonald, who was running the Highland Festival at the time, and talked to him. He liked the idea of bringing someone from the west coast together with a Shetlander and some Highland players, and I suppose I was closer to the East coast style, to present a fiddle showcase.”
The original idea as MacGregor, Catriona Macdonald from Shetland, Duncan Chisholm, Aidan O’Rourke, Iain MacFarlane and Allan Henderson set off to play their first gig at Strathy Hall in Caithness, with guitarist Marc Clements as their accompanist, was for each fiddler to play two solo features and then for everyone to join in a big stramash at the end. All went to plan but by the end of the fourth and final concert the big stramash at the end had developed into a hoolie of major proportions.
“It fairly quickly became what everyone was there for, to be honest,” says MacGregor. “We had such a good laugh that we all said we can’t stop now. So we put Blazin’ Fiddles on the road and with the help of a former minister and born diplomat, Gordon Webber, who became our manager, we became a band. Gordon was a great help because keeping us all in order must have been, as someone said at the time, like herding cats.”
Under the surface madness, there was a serious purpose in Blazin’ Fiddles. The name marked not only the figurative sparks flying onstage but also, or MacGregor, the idea of the fiddle rising from the ashes of the instruments that had been burned by the church during the Reformation so that only voices could be used in praise. But aside from that, MacGregor wanted to honour the teachers who had passed on their skills and knowledge to all the fiddlers involved.
“This was particularly important because we had Catriona, who had learned from the great Tom Anderson in Shetland,” says MacGregor. “Allan had learned from Aonghas Grant, the wonderful Highland fiddler, and Iain, Duncan and I had learned from Donald Riddell, who used to tell me stories about fiddles being burned in the Highlands. We felt we owed these teachers everything and by playing the tunes they taught us we were keeping their teaching alive.”
In time, Blazin’ Fiddles themselves would become the teachers, individually and collectively, with Iain MacFarlane going on to teach at the Traditional Music Centre of Excellence in Plockton, Catriona Macdonald becoming senior lecturer in fiddle at Newcastle University and Allan Henderson teaching on the UHI course in Benbecula. The band’s annual fiddle school, Blazin’ in Beauly, has now been running in the Highland town for seventeen years – they also briefly ran one in Boston, Massachusetts - and has been responsible, at least in part, for nurturing one of the current line-up, Rua MacMillan.
“We kept largely the same personnel for the first ten years, although we lost Duncan along the way and Andy Thorburn came in on piano alongside Marc to form the rhythm section,” says MacGregor. “And we marked that first decade with the With Strings Attached concerts, with Justin Currie and Eddi Reader and extra string players, which were quite successful. So we’d had a good run. We’d released an album every couple of years and done a lot of touring and when Aidan and Catriona and then, later, Iain and Allan dropped out I was ready to call it a day.”
Jenna Reid, who had stepped in to maintain the Shetland fiddling connection and the Mk 11 rhythm section, guitarist Anna Massie and pianist Angus Lyon, persuaded MacGregor that he would be mad not to continue with Blazin’ Fiddles. So Orcadian Kristan Harvey and Rua MacMillan, from Nairn were invited to bring the fiddling contingent up to four (in fact five as Massie plays fiddle as well as guitar).
“It was appropriate that Rua came on board, although when I discovered he’d attended Blazin’ in Beauly when he was twelve I felt suddenly old,” says McGregor. “Rua gives our idea of passing on what our teachers gave us a direct sense of continuity because of that connection and with Jenna in the band we have another great teacher and tradition bearer, Willie Hunter, being honoured.”
MacGregor laughs as he recounts how, in a recent Blazin’ in Beauly quiz he was royally thrashed by MacMillan, who turned out to know more about Blazin’ Fiddles’ history than MacGregor did himself, thus adding to the younger man’s Blazer credentials. And as he prepares the repertoire for the band’s twentieth anniversary concert he has another younger Blazer, Anna Massie, to thank for organising the pdfs of tunes that the various past band members have been requesting.
“I’m hopeless with technology,” MacGregor concedes. “And between them asking about rehearsals and looking for sheet music ahead of the gig, I could be tempted to think the old guys are just showing off. But I know they’re really just showing their commitment and want to make the concert a success.”
Blazin’ Fiddles 20th anniversary concert takes place at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 1.
From The Herald, December 20, 2017
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