“Hey Me, Hey Mama”. The Rise of Sierra Ferrell.

Once in a blue moon you discover this unique, outstanding talent – you listen to her or him and realize that your world never will be the same – there is a before and after. Limited to female country and folk singers I’ve experienced this in the last thirty years with singers like Iris Dement, Mary Gauthier, Gillian Welch, Eilen Jewell, Diana Jones and a few more. Something new, but steeped in tradition, taking the whole shebang steps forward, extending the lines and connecting the dots. Freshness & passion. Free spirit, but humble carrying the torch received from their foremothers. They have in common the ability to make time stand still, or at least my time, to make me listen, and to listen again – leaving me wanting more. As you get older you might think you’ll never experience this once more, but then: Entrance Sierra Ferrell.

To call her “just” a country singer might giving the wrong impressions – she is that, too – but when it comes to genres she is, like many of the greatest artists, not limited by any of them. Elements from bluegrass, jazz, swing, latin, hints of Eastern-Europe and far East, blues, folk, rockabilly & country goes into the great melting pot called Sierra – both in her own written songs and in her exquisite choices of cover versions. Whatever works. And it does. As Dylan says: When it comes to music, there is no need for border patrol. Sierra Ferrell lives this ethic.

This year’s single from Ferrell, “Hey Me, Hey Mama” is a Ray La Montagne original, but in this beautiful version, live from the sitting room, it really represents a lot of this artist’s strengths, her unique ability to perform a song, the creative outburst shown both in the visuals & aesthetics, but first and foremost through the strength of the vocal – timing, phrasing, power & with deep feeling. She immediately reminds me of the strong pre-war female voices like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith & Memphis Minnie – soul sisters with naked voices brimming with raw pover and intensity. To compare a newcomer like Ferrell with those icons, doesn’t come easy for me, the bar is really high – still, this is an artist that, in my book, ranks with some of the greatest of voices that reaches my heart. How it will develop through the years, how her music will develop, we don’t know – but her starting point is phenomenal and her voice and mature singing is fabulous. No limit. This song also shows her impressive ability to make a cover version completely her own, of which there are many examples – some of them presented here.

Still, Sierra is so much more than just a fabulous cover artist, she also writes her own music – story telling songs performed with the same convincing beauty and intensity as she delivers the classics – her own songs inside the tradition but with the unique stamp of Sierra Ferrell. Last year’s album contains lots of great exhibits of this – Give It Time is one of them.

Sierra experienced a poor upbringing, living with her mother and one of her siblings, listening to punk and grunge, started busking and met other musicians that made her listen to swing and bluegrass, a voice therapist helped her make her vocal chords “a six-pack”, the fanbase steadily growing after seeing her live, at last including Rounder Records, that signed her for a three-record-deal in 2018.

“I want to sound old”, she says on the Gladden House Sessions in 2019, presenting several of the songs from the album released in 2021. As Gillian Welch she brings old and modern together in the mix.

Her own powerful take on surf-rock is hard to describe – a masterly performed jambalaya of rhythm, Sierra always accompanied with great musicians in love with the music they’re playing.

When Sierra sings the Buck Owens classic “Foolin’ Around”, she attacks it with an powerful rendition based on Patsy Cline’s version of the song.

2020 brought several great live performances of both old and new songs, like this one from WXPN Winter Sessions.

The beautiful “West Virginia Waltz” is Sierra’s own song, written with her great fiddle player, Nate Leath. The subdued glow of the song make it feel like an instant classic.

Her six-pack vocal chords gives her a unique, seemingly limitless versatility in her singing, as we can hear in “Why Haven’t You Loved Me Yet”.

Following several strong women in country music, there is no surprise that she is covering Loretta Lynn, here with a great rendition of “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”.

2021: “I want my music to be like my mind is – all over the place”

I have to admit there is especially satisfying to know that Sierra also has covered Bob Dylan, even if it might be inspired by Eilen Jewell’s cover of the same song. What I only can guess, is that Bob Dylan would love to play some Sierra Ferrell songs on a future “Theme Time Radio Hour” shows, should there be one.

Talking of strong female country artists, it’s also an obvious choice for Ferrell to sing a song known by Kitty Wells, maybe best known for her hit with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”, but with a considerable legacy of great country songs

“Snakes Crawl At Night” was first released by David Houston, but in this video they are pointing to the more widely known Charley Pride version. Either way, Sierra’s version is the top of the three, in my humble opinion.

I guess Tom Paxton, who both wrote and recorded this song first, will forgive that it here is presented as a “Dolly & Porter”-song, of course a very important reason for making the song a classic also in the country field. Again, Sierra’s versjon is up there with the finest versions.

To take this beautiful bluegrass song of Stanley Brothers and make it a full-blown funky country soul performance, just shows the potential of Soul Sister Sierra Ferrell. She really can do anything she wants!

Merle Kilgore wrote the country classic, “More And More”, covered by both Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. The song is of course most known as a signature song for Webb Pierce. Sierra Ferrell makes a beautiful version, here with Nick Shoulders.

“Long Time Coming” – The Album.

Some of the songs was alive and performed as live songs long before the album. The pandemic might have had something to do with how this worked out. As we know, Sierra was working all the time, getting more and more fans and admirers, even before the album was released. Still, the album is an impressive debut for the artist, critically acclaimed both for the songs and the singing. The videos following the album shows the width and variation of this great collection of songs – the traditional country song “Bells of Every Chapel”, the innovative song and singing of “In Dreams” with a touch of the East both in melody and vocals, then the jazzy swing of “The Sea”. Wow!

The videos of Sierra’s performances, both live in studio and on stage, keeps on coming. With a voice without restraint Sierra just keeps on belting out both old and new songs, just making us beg for more. Like with “At The End of the Rainbow”, making us all believe that Sierra for quite some time will represent some of the gold we might find there in years to come.

Johnny Borgan

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