The story of Sierra Ferrell, an emerging country/Americana singer-songwriter, has just begun to be written. But so far, her debut performance at the historic Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on November 26 ranks up there as a career highlight. “Playing the Opry was pretty phenomenal,” she recalls of that recent experience. “I’ve never been there, so I didn’t really know what to expect. You can feel the magic there. A lot of my idols play[ed] there. And even if I didn’t see them, I got to see the names on the wall of all these people who have been there. So it definitely has a lot of juju going on.”
At this point in her upward career trajectory, Ferrell’s name might someday be up on the Opry’s wall of fame, too. For the Nashville-based artist, 2021 has been an eventful year. Ferrell’s debut album, the appropriately-titled Long Time Coming, was released in August via Rounder Records and generated very positive reviews. She has recently headlined her own U.S. tour, and next month she’ll be playing sold-out dates in the U.K. and Ireland.
The attention that this relative newcomer has been receiving, however, hasn’t gone over her head. “It’s been a roller coaster,” Ferrell says, “because, besides all of the success that I seem to be getting, I have my own issues with my personal relationships and it’s a struggle. But there’s so much reward at the end of the tunnel with the record that’s out and all the feedback I’m getting. It kinda keeps me going these days, honestly.”
Not only through her charismatic and arresting singing, which possesses a vintage quality, but Ferrell’s sound is also a throwback to traditional country music. While the Appalachian influences are strongly pronounced, the retro-sounding roots music on Long Time Coming incorporates other styles including early 20th-century jazz, Latin (“Why’d Ya Do It”), and even calypso (“Far Across the Sea”)
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“It’s definitely exposure,” Ferrell says of her diverse musical tastes in addition to the roots music. “We kind of pick and choose what we want in our repertoire of what we enjoy. I’ve been exposed to so many different musicians throughout my life, and it’s been inspirational for me. We soak up our surroundings and we become a little bit of everyone that we adore or love.”
Long Time Coming was co-produced by Gary Paczosa and Stu Hibberd and recorded at Southern Ground Nashville, an experience that Ferrell describes as wonderful. “I had a great time working with them,” the singer says. “I was really lucky in that department because sometimes you just never know and you might not be happy with the outcome.I would definitely say I’m very happy with the outcome. I really enjoyed what came up because it sounds old, but it also sounds new.”
The songs on Long Time Coming are mostly yearning, lovelorn meditations on relationships. They draw inspiration from the singer’s own experiences and observations. “For me, it’s really easy to be sad,” she says, “and it’s easy for me to send that message and portray that emotion across to other people. It’s taken a lot of pain and suffering throughout the years (laughs), but I feel like each song tells its own story. Whenever I write a song, it’s not 100 percent all about me. Of course, there are qualities of me in there, but I write about a lot of people who I see or people I meet or something that they were going through. I put myself in their position and maybe embellish it a little bit to make it more exciting for me—but also just to tell a story.”
One of the tracks that contain some elements of Ferrell’s life is the twang-y “Jeremiah,” which was previously released last year as a single. “It’s a story about someone who I met and I kind of embellished it,” she explains. “It’s about some guy around town who’s married but he never wears his wedding ring out. And that part’s true, because I know someone like that. I took that story and ran with it: ‘he’s out every night, he’s with a different woman, and he never wears his wedding ring.’ But she [Jeremiah’s wife] still stays with him because, as time goes on and he gets older, he’s gonna be a better person and stop doing that.”
Another track from Long Time Coming, the poignant ballad “Give It Time,” was born out of Ferrell playing around with a fiddle. “I was pretty lonely,” she remembers of that particular time. “As humans, we could be surrounded by people and still feel so down sometimes. I was going through that period in time. I was very lonely for a partner and I wasn’t settling for less. So I started playing around with the fiddle and I came up with the chorus ‘give it time.’
“I was putting myself in a situation where I was going to a thrift store,” she continues. “You look at stuff and if you open up a drawer, all of a sudden you find this paper in there. It’s telling you that everything’s gonna be okay, to not worry, and try to do the best you can and don’t let the down times control your life. We all know that we’re gonna be sad sometimes. But then after you get through that, at the end of the tunnel, there’s a light. You got people who love you and people who want to keep you around.”
“Made Like That,” another somewhat-autobiographical song, which references Ferrel’s home state of West Virginia, is another rumination about relationships. “That song does have a lot of me in it. I’m saying, “I only love one man at a time.” That’s pretty true for me. I can’t do random hook-ups, especially at my age. Personally, I enjoy being with one person. When I’m with a partner, I don’t really need many other people in my life. I can be content with that person most of the time. We all make mistakes and we’re humans—we can’t help it. We’re supposed to keep learning and growing. It’s okay to make mistakes, but just realize that you’re making a mistake and try to learn from it and keep progressing and growing.”
Given how much Ferrell’s music evokes old-time country music at its most basic and pure form—and the fact that she is from the Mountain State—leads to an assumption that she was initially exposed to that sound growing up. But, as she says, “the first music I listened to was ’90s radio, like Matchbox 20 and 3 Doors Down,” she says. “All I knew was radio stuff. My mom had a 10,000 Maniacs cassette tape. That’s also a wake-up call in some ways. You don’t really need to grow up in a certain way to be a certain way. Some of the best bluegrass/old-time players are from Florida, Michigan and Seattle. No matter where you’re from—if it’s in you, then it’s gonna come out. As long as you are being honest and genuine with yourself, other people are gonna believe it.”
Ferrell says she always knew she wanted music to become a part of her life—as a child, she once sang Shania Twain covers at a local bar. And prior to becoming a solo artist, she had been in a Grateful Dead cover group. “I was kind of getting a little stagnant in that band,” Ferrell said. “I wanted to start to play guitar. They didn’t want that, they wanted me to dance around on stage, sing backups. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to branch out and go see things.’ I was in a dark hole in West Virginia…and then I just scrammed: ‘I’m getting out of here.’”
She recalls encountering a busking group called Yes Ma’am whose music made an impression on her: “It was the old songs that they played. I was remembering like, ‘Where is this music? Why is this music not popular?’ It touches you more. The songs are so old and they’re still being played. Do you think some of this pop stuff is going to be played in 100 years from now? There’s just magic in the old music, there’s something there.”
In her formative years, Ferrell had busked in New Orleans and Seattle while also living in a van; she has also traveled throughout the country with other like-minded nomadic musicians. Those experiences shaped her as a musician before she relocated to Nashville and later signed to Rounder Records.
“I definitely learned a lot about sadness (laughs) because I spent a lot of time alone in my van. It definitely helped structure my music. It wouldn’t be the same without it. Looking back, I could have done things a lot differently to probably progress faster. But I don’t think I would have had the heart if it wasn’t for all the struggles and understanding what it’s like to be at the bottom before you get to the top. Hopefully, I keep rising.”
Ferrell is continuing to navigate upward her career amid the critical attention and diligent touring (she’ll be back performing more U.S. dates in February following the U.K. shows). Having already done the Opry, she is going to play another Music City institution, the Ryman Auditorium, on December 30 with Old Crow Medicine Show. “That’s kind of a dream come true, being able to get out there and be a part of it at these monumental places in Nashville,” she says.
As for her goals in the next five years, Ferrell says she hopes to earn a Grammy nomination for her work, adding: “I wanna hopefully keep writing songs that people can connect with and relate to. That’s gonna be a harder part for me to try to make sure that I keep producing something that people would want to hear.”