West Virginia’s Sierra Ferrell talks Jimmie Rodgers, recording ‘Long Time Coming,’ and developing her personal style

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Rising star Sierra Ferrell grew up in small-town West Virginia but left the region early on in her life to travel the country. She made her living (and learned more than a thing or two about how people listen to music) by busking on street corners between Seattle and New Orleans.

Throughout her journeys, the young artist picked up on a great variety of musical traditions from other nomadic musicians. These relationships infused Ferrell’s own sound with rich elements of seemingly disparate genres from all over the country – brought together in a rich, uniquely American musical concoction drawing equally from swing à la Cab Calloway, Appalachian bluegrass à la mid-century “Andy Griffith Show” stars The Dillards, and the “golden era” calypso of the ‘20s and ‘30s.

The result is a sound that is one part trad jazz and one part Dixieland with an inner propulsion provided by Ferrell’s deep set love of ‘90s grunge, punk, and metal. Ferrell refined this sound through her captivating live performances, leading her signing with Rounder Records in 2018.

Just a few months after the release of her highly anticipated Rounder Records debut, the aptly entitled “Long Time Coming,” West Virginia’s own Sierra Ferrell is headed to the Peoples Bank Theatre (222 Putnam Street) in Marietta on Saturday, April 30. A few weeks prior to the performance, Ferrell spoke to me from the road – on the second day of her tour, to be precise.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the interview (and some of Sierra’s music) click “play” in the Soundcloud window above. 

Sierra Ferrell. (Photography by Alysse Gafkjen Artwork: Flo Mihr)

Emily Votaw: First off, I’ve got to ask about your personal style. It’s incredible! How would you define it?

Sierra Ferrell: Well, thank you so much! My personal style is something that I’ve developed over time. It’s something that is therapeutic for me in a lot of ways. I grew up in a pretty poor family, and I always felt like I couldn’t really dress how I wanted to because of that – but if I could have dressed how I wanted to, I bet it would have been pretty ridiculous! So, in my adult life, as I have more control over my life and things are going well for me, it’s a lot easier for me to dress how I want and use that in my profession. Style and music go hand and hand, you know? But in my case, my music is kind of all over the place and therefore so is my style! I pick up little things, things from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘40s, even some ‘70s stuff.

Emily Votaw: Last year, the UK-based independent music website The Line of the Best Fit ran a big profile on you, and in that interview you said your love of old music was sparked by meeting street performers and buskers throughout your youth as you travelled the country – I’m so curious: what are some of your favorite songs or musical styles that you learned from your fellow nomads back then?

Sierra Ferrell: You know, there were a lot of traveling kids. One thing they’d do was take a song and turn it into a minor key, which I’m still kind of obsessed with doing that myself these days. A lot of old classic stuff I put in a minor key and then just sing it and it just gives it a completely different feel, almost kind of spooky in a way, you know? While I was traveling I got turned on a lot to Jimmie Rogers – and he gave people the imagery of being a hobo and riding trains and traveling. And I definitely feel like that was a huge inspiration on me because at the time I was doing that stuff and I thought it was really cool that he sang about it and also dreamed about it and kind of put it up on a pedestal.

Now, in my career of being a musician, I’m doing headlining tours, and I can find all my old friends in the past who have taught me this sort of style of music and who opened that door for me. I try to help lift them up by inviting them to my shows or letting them know I’d love for them to open for me, or just by giving them some money or even just some snacks. I just try to help lift them up because I wouldn’t be here without them. We all wouldn’t be where we are without the help of other people, and it’s so good to remember that.

Emily Votaw: “Long Time Coming” features wonderfully souped up versions of “In Dreams,” “Made Like That,” “Jeremiah” and “The Sea,” songs that are fan favorites. I’m curious: what was it like to record these songs, which you have been playing live for years, in Nashville’s Southern Ground and Minutia Studios?

Sierra Ferrell: It was very alarming to me because I always recorded my music in the past at my own speed. There was never any pressure. I was just recording for fun. I wasn’t sure if anything was gonna come from it. It was kind of just like documenting my songs at the time. And so when I went into to the recording studio at Southern Ground, we recorded pretty much the whole backbone of the record in about three days. And it was pretty intense cuz you know, we’d go in in the morning and we had someone come in and cook and so we didn’t even leave there. We stayed there from morning to night and there weren’t any windows. So it was always funny leaving there in the dark. But it was definitely a new experience and I welcomed it with open arms. I’m a pretty easy-going person. I get along with most people, I might be awkward and weird and might bring a weird air to the room. But you know, I’m usually pretty open to opinions and new experiences with music.

Emily Votaw: In an interview with Glide Magazine last year, you said you consider yourself a vocalist first and foremost. I know you’ve always been a singer, and I’m wondering how you developed your distinct voice – or did you just always have the ability to sound like a 1920s jazz singer?

Sierra Ferrell: Well, I said that I’m mainly a vocalist because I’ve just been practicing it longer, just like a lot of people pour a lot of their time and hours into mastering the guitar or mastering piano or fiddle or, you know, fill in the blank. But I definitely feel like I’ve spent most of my time singing and if it wasn’t for the radio, I feel like I wouldn’t be at the level that I’m at now, which is being able to use my voice to actually make a career, which blows my mind every day. I get to do this for a living and people enjoy it, which is the best part of being a musician: connecting with people in ways and helping people get through things because they’re often going through a hard time and such.

The radio definitely helped a lot for me because I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, and as a kid, you don’t really get it. You don’t get the big picture yet. You just see what’s in front of you and you’re trying to figure it out. And I feel like the radio was just always there. And so I was always listening to it. I didn’t really know much about genres and styles as much. I just liked what I liked!

I’m a pretty easy-going person. I get along with most people, I might be awkward and weird and might bring a weird air to the room. But you know, I’m usually pretty open to opinions and new experiences with music. – Sierra Ferrell

Emily Votaw: If you could, from your vantage point now, go back in time and talk to 18 year old you – what would you say to her?

Sierra Ferrell: I would tell myself to calm down. It’s all gonna be okay. I’m a very intense person and I would tell myself to be more gentle!