REVIEW: Sierra Hull’s “25 Trips” is Musically Complex Self-Exploration


For a woman in the country music universe, the only thing that might be tougher than getting airplay is getting recognition for being a brilliant musician. Even in the relatively open-minded Americana world, only two women (Sara Watkins and Molly Tuttle) have won Instrumentalist of the Year from the Americana Music Association. Mandolinist Sierra Hull, who made her Grand Ole Opry debut at 10(!) and played Carnegie Hall at 12(!!), had to wait through several International Bluegrass Music Association nominations before winning Mandolin Player of the Year in 2016, and she followed it up the next two years. Now, after a quarter-century of life, most of it spent making music, Hull is anxious to find out what’s next for her, a topic she explores in her latest release, 25 Trips.

Hull’s self-assessment begins with the album’s lead track, “Beautifully Out of Place,” which finds the singer wondering where others find the faith in her that she can’t see – “How long is it gonna take me/To trust myself?” Much of Hull’s past music has been rather spare, focusing on her formidable chops and seemingly effortless vocals. Here, though, she and co-producer Shani Gandhi have created more of a full string band sound. A fiddle can be found on several of the tracks. “How Long” starts with a lone fiddle before sonically building and exploding. The title song adds cello and bass and features multiple tempo changes – even at just under three minutes, it’s one of the most musically complex pieces I’ve heard in a while. The lyrics match the musical freneticism, with the singer asking, “Hello time, will you slow down?”

A life lived carelessly seems to be a fear of Hull’s. “Escape” has her annoyed at the time she’s spent making dead-end choices – “And the more that I take this in/The more I wanna run/Cause the less time I would have been losin’.” “Everybody’s Talking” features vocals from a similarly anxious 25-year-old, Katie Pruitt, and has the Hull fed up with the noise surrounding her and reminding herself that not all of those outside opinions need to be heard: – “It’s all gonna go like it’s gonna go/And there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.” And “Ceiling To The Floor” relates another fear – heights. In trying to conquer it – “Go on and just reach up there now/It’s really not that far” – she’s not just addressing a common phobia, but an attempt to gain enough confidence to take on a world slow to accept her gifts.

Several of the other song titles – “Envy,” “Waiting,” and “Poison” (featuring Molly Tuttle on vocals) – reflect impatience with wasteful pursuits. But the album’s closer, “Father Time,” finds Hull where she wants to be – watching her husband care for his grandmother, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and a stroke. In observing his patient, unhurried manner, she sees that not everything can be rushed: “Little somethings from the past/That make us cry and make us laugh/Oh they almost bring her back.” It’s what the kids call “being present.” And, as the album concludes with Hull’s strummed version of the familiar Westminster Quarters clock chimes, we’re reminded that, no matter our age, not everything is quite so urgent as we might make it out to be.

25 Trips was produced by Hull and Shani Gandhi, recorded and mixed by Gandhi (additional mixing by Gary Paczosa), and mastered by Adam Grover. All songs were written by Hull, with co-writing credits to Parker Millsap, Cindy Morgan, Kai Welch, Angel Snow, Laura Leigh Jones and Mindy Smith. Additional musicians include Mike Seal (electric guitar), Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), Justin Moses (acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro), Viktor Krauss (bass), Jano Rix (drums), Sam Reider (piano), Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Nathaniel Smith (cello), Ethan Jodziewicz (bass), Paul Franklin (pedal steel), Josh Kaler (pedal steel, synth), Christian Sedelmeyer (fiddle), and Angel Snow, Elise Hayes, Ronnie Bowman, Kai Welch, Ron Block and Mindy Smith (background vocals).

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