Innovation has long been an important part of the musical endeavor, and it’s often the first person to happen upon a new idea—rather than the people who refine it—that remains foremost in our minds. That’s certainly true in bluegrass, and Bill Monroe will remain the king of the genre even when a majority of the bluegrass audience isn’t familiar with his recordings. Becky Buller includes the Monroe penned “Southern Flavor” on her recent album, though it’s likely that the majority of her audience won’t recognize it for what it is. Monroe, even if listeners aren’t aware of it, continues to be a force within the music.
That’s fine of course. Where the idea of innovation can start to get away from us is when it exerts too much of an influence on the music that other people are making, or becomes too much of a touchstone for the production and the consumption of musical ideas. In the world of mandolin, the force that looms large these days is Chris Thile. He’s an innovator extraordinare, and he’s also highly visible. Ask most Americans to name a mandolin player, and his is the first name that will come up. Many, I’d imagine, would be hard pressed to offer a second.
His music is as distinctive as his stage persona—he’s as remarkable an entertainer as he is a musician. In the concert footage of the performance of “The Auld Triangle” Thile gets laughs with nothing more than a well timed tilt of the head, a glance, upraised or a shrug, as after the line “Humpy Gussie was creeping.” That’s because everyone in the audience is fixated on him. Rightfully so. He’s just that compelling a performer, with an instinct stagecraft that has been honed over the arc of a long, busy career. It looks effortless, of course, which is part of it too. But again, that shrug got a laugh from an audience of 1500 people—it’s not everyone who can command so large a room with so little.
It’s that command and confidence that affords him room for his musical innovation. His audience will follow him anywhere, and he rewards their trust—he takes them all over the place. Even in the New York Times his playing is still discussed as bluegrass mandolin—with the ubiquitous references to Bill Monroe—he’s come so far from that point that the reference doesn’t really have any meaning. He’s very nearly created his own genre. Perhaps the only thing it needs now is a name.
What’s unfortunate, perhaps, is that other players are left to deal with the elephant in the mandolin room—Thile—because they are invariably going to be compared to him. The choices are to tag along, or to give him wide berth. On her latest release, Sierra Hull has chosen to tag along. She’s made motions toward Thile’s style of playing and composition before, though never as blatantly as this.
She does it masterfully, of course. She’s long been worth our attention, even at a tender age, and that becomes a comparison, too: both Thile and Hull are prodigies. Here she uses the light, clean touch that we associate with Thile, music that’s made with the delicacy that a microphone can afford. Monroe was the Ethel Merman of the bluegrass world, trading tonal quality for projection. Hull can do that, though here she’s the opposite: clean, clear, intimate. On “Weighted Mind” she varies between muddy and clean, using all the paints in the box, though it’s still very close music, full of all the dissonance and complexity that Thile brought, in a sense, to the mandolin world. On “Stranded” and “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” Hull also writes with the autobiographical tone that Thile does so well. Or, if we’re being totally honest, that he does better.
Sadly, that type of material feels like a distraction, as if the force of Thile and the genre that the Punch Brothers have defined has been too seductive. On this album, the best tracks are the ones where Hull remains closer to her own persona, or at least the persona that she’s presented in her music in the past. “Lullaby” uses a more familiar structure, one which allows her voice to really do what it does best.
One of the best things I’ve heard from Hull in the last while is her duet with Mac Wiseman on “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood” released in 2014. There her playing is adept, sympathetic, and entirely authentic. She’s supporting Wiseman, and while her playing and singing there won’t thrill a Vegas audience, it does thrill a listener who knows what she’s doing. Her solo is straightforward and, in it’s the economy that exposes it for what it is: masterful. It’s that authentic voice that I hoped to hear on Weighted Mind. Instead, it feels like she’s wrestling with someone else’s persona rather than simply relaxing and being herself.
John Jaeger: I saw Ms. Hull at IBMA last October. I found her performance interesting while the content self centered. I found myself distracted from the music by the twenty something angst. I left her performance feeling I needed to wait until Ms. Hull’s song choices catch up to her talented singing and playing. I appreciate this review and will refrain from purchasing the CD. I hope Ms. Hull finds her own voice in better material.
n8c: I spent a lot of time writing a response to this article that I put a lot of thought into. I guess because I disagree with the author, you’ve censored it and it won’t get posted, which is disappointing. So I’ll just say thanks for your review, but I wish you wouldn’t fault Ms. Hull for adopting some of what Thile has brought to the table. He did revolutionize the genre and she does lie in his wake, after all.
Glen Herbert: Yes, I felt the same way about the content, though didn’t really mention that in the review. But I agree. It’s hard to buy into all the deep reflection. The first lyrics we hear on the album are “Dear 22/I’m stranded here/I’m stranded.” Hmmm … You’re 22! Go for it, girl! The world’s your oyster! All the biggest mistakes in your life are still to come!
In all seriousness, though, I think it’s important to universalize ideas/concepts a bit more than she does on this album. You can have insights, and indeed very important ones. Joni Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now” when she was just 21. It’s not fair perhaps to compare her to Joni Mitchell, but it’s an example of how we use the things we’re thinking about, how we present the insights that we have. A bit of narrative distance would have served Hull better in this instance.
n8c: Your review strikes me as tad unfair. I agree that Thile towers over the bluegrass (and surrounding) landscape, but what’s unfair is to expect Sierra Hull to lie squarely outside of Thile’s shadow. There are so many instances of artistic forces so great that those who followed were inevitably shaped by them in some way. Calvin and Hobbes for comics. Elvis for early rock. Radiohead’s OK Computer. It’s going to happen. So the fair thing is to look at her within the new regime. Does she still present her own voice, however shaped by the times? I think resoundingly yes. Her playing and songwriting is decidedly distinct from Thile’s. She created a record he never could or would have–something that combines elements of his bolder harmonic language with something softer, more heartfelt and genuine. If there’s something Thile and Punch Brothers records have lacked for me, it has been bare emotion. I absolutely love Punch Brothers, but technique and bravado frequently encumber their ability to truly expose their hearts. As a result, their emotional undertakings often sound stilted. Listening to Weighted Mind is all the more delicious and different for that very reason. Sierra gives us something Thile can’t (or hasn’t really been able to so far)–some truly beautiful, genuine tracks with a modern edge.