Bluegrass star Sierra Hull says deciding to take out time from her career to attend college was a tough decision.
"I've known I wanted to play music since I was 8 years old," says Hull in a phone call. "I'd sort of been anticipating the day for what felt like so many years ... being excited about the day when I would get out of high school and go play music all the time."
In the end, though, she decided to accept a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston and enroll in the two-year Artist Diploma Program.
Still only 19, Hull has created a buzz in bluegrass as a mandolin prodigy since her preteens. A native of Byrdstown, Tenn., Hull was only 10 when Mike Snider brought her onstage to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. Hull was 11 when Alison Krauss championed her on the same program. Hull, then a little girl with a toothy grin, can be seen holding her own with Krauss and her band Union Station playing "Cluck Old Hen" in a popular YouTube video.
In 2008, Krauss and Union Station banjoist Rob Block produced Hull's debut CD "Secrets" and, earlier this year, Hull released her second CD, "Daybreak," which was produced by Union Station bassist Barry Bales.
Hull says there was never a point where she said to herself "I'm really good at this." She knows she was good for her age, but that wouldn't sustain her.
"When you're little people say things and are super nice if you can play at all. I think being a kid, most of the time, people just go 'Cute little kid there.' My dad always made sure that I knew if I was going to make it work, like I said I wanted, I was really going to have to work and the cute little kid act would wear off."
However, Hull says the enthusiasm of fans and fellow performers made her think that she might actually be able to make a living at it.
"All I really thought about at the time was how much I admired them. Some of the people I was fortunate enough to meet and play with were my heroes. Just to have your heroes like anything you do or even give you the time of day to talk to you is really special. So to feel like I could actually have a friendship with some of these people was really exciting then. Still today, I feel so blessed to be able to call a lot of my heroes friends."
She says her time spent at Berklee was good. She was submerged in music, surrounded by excellent musicians and she was introduced to a more structured type of musical learning.
"When I first started to play I really didn't study at all. I was mostly learning to play by just doing it — going to festivals and learning from other people," she says. "I certainly wouldn't have had the chance to play with the types of musicians I played with there if I'd just sort of stayed in my same circle all the time. It really got me out of my comfort zone, which was good."
The school helped work with her schedule so she could record "Daybreak." She also wrote many of the songs on the album.
"I still don't think of myself as a great songwriter or whatever," says Hull. "But part of what made the record kind of special for me is seeing the songs come to life with a lot of great musicians playing on them. To actually go in and put them on a record where they can come to life is pretty cool."
Hull says she has good memories of growing up playing music.
"My mom and dad worked jobs and didn't get a lot of time off, so we didn't take a lot of vacations," she says. "If we hadn't been traveling so much to shows I would've missed seeing so much."
She says she enjoys time at home with her family, but she's happy to finally be able to be touring as much as she wants.
"If I have too much time at home I start feeling like I'm not productive. You know, I want to be out there doing it."
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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