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Taken from Variety (Mar 26, 2024)

Sierra Ferrell on Being a Roots Music Queen, Dueting With Zach Bryan, and Why She Got Floral With New 'Trail of Flowers' Album

by Chris Willman

PhotoCredit: Bobbi Rich
Sierra Ferrell. PhotoCredit: Bobbi Rich

Sierra Ferrell is bringing some goddess energy to the cover of her excellent new album, "Trail of Flowers," and that fits. Just two albums into her career, Ferrell is already on the fast track to queenliness, if not godhood, among roots enthusiasts. In a world where a neo-bluegrass guy like Billy Strings can suddenly become a star among the kids, Ferrell may be the closest thing we have to that among female stars. Given the chance, she'll be the one to unite the jam-band crowd, string-band people, singer-songwriter enthusiasts, Gram Parsons-loving country-rockers, hippies, hillbillies and anyone who just likes good, hooky songs.

Ferrell won't be tied down: "I love to just play whatever brings me joy, and it's not necessarily one sort of genre." The joy is contagious whenever Ferrell opens up her considerable pipes, which would be enough, even before she enlivens a set with her guitar picking and fiddle playing. Given her participation on Zach Bryan's bestselling album and spots on his tour, even more potential fans are finding out that Ferrell is the full package in the realm of acoustically based music. Variety spoke with her shortly before "Trail of Flowers" came out and a new tour kicked off, starting with shows at L.A.'s Fonda Theatre April 3-4 (see the full itinerary below).

Your style sense is always intriguing. You can definitely rock the Nudie's-type suit, like when we saw you recently saluting Gram Parsons at the Grammy Museum. But we never know exactly what your image is going to be the next time we see you.

A fun part for me is the visual - the outfits, the different clothes. It makes me happy, and if I feel happy, I can put on a better show for people, and if I put on a better show for people, maybe they'll come back.

If there is a predictable element at all to your look, it's that flowers seem to be involved, a fair amount, in your costuming and hair.

I love flowers, and that's why my record's called "Trail of Flowers." Because wherever I go to play, I end up leaving tons of trails of flowers everywhere. And that's how that title even came to be.

So you don't mind shedding, a little bit.

I don't mind shedding a little bit and, in fact, honestly, it's good to shed, it turns out.

PhotoCredit: Bobbi Rich
Sierra Ferrell. PhotoCredit: Bobbi Rich

It looks like you have a gold tooth. Is that something new for you?

Oh yeah, I just got it on. If I was gonna have to put a fake tooth in there, I might as well make it gold, you know? And there's a little heart on there - for "Eat your heart out."

In terms of how you arrived at your sound, it's just always intriguing when someone like you comes along who has a kind of purity to her sound. You've said you grew up listening to normal stuff that was on the radio, and not any of the old-time influences we can hear in your music. It wasn't like you had a mom or a grandma who just played 78s all day long.

Yeah - I wish. I kind of grew up just listening to '90s music. I didn't really know much about anything, really. And I feel like I started to learn more about old-time music in my early twenties, when I started going to more festivals.

The Grateful Dead is like a gateway drug for a lot of young people now to get into bluegrass and that kind of thing. You were part of a band early on that played Dead covers. Was that part of how it worked for you, or did you had some other kind of entry into some of the older or more acoustic sounds that you incorporate?

Well, honestly, when I joined that band, I didn't even know who the Grateful Dead was. The band would joke and say, "Oh, these are songs that we've written," and they would just snicker and laugh about it with each other. Of course, eventually I found out it was a cover band, and I was OK with it, because they're great songs and it was fun - and in more of a dance mode, a lot, and so it was fun to dance around and play tambourine on stage. But then that just wasn't enough for me. I wanted to start playing instruments, and I had more songs that I was writing, and they wanted to do the songs they wanted to do, which involved a lot of Grateful Dead covers. That band, 600lbs of Sin, served its purpose, and I'm glad that I got to experience it and be in it, but I knew that there was more for me.

I knew that there was something else, and I didn't really find out as much about the bluegrass and the old-time community until maybe my early twenties. And I was touring around West Virginia and some neighboring states a bunch, and there was this band called Fox Hunt. They were a string band, and John R. Miller was one of the lead singers and the guitar player in that band. And I wrote that "Fox Hunt" song [on the new album] in some sort of way to tip the hat to him and to thank him and his group for the inspiration to be where I am now, with my hands and feet dipped in old times.

A lot of people in the roots community probably have a lot of hopes pinned on you, because you are the kind of representation of acoustic-based music that everyone just "gets," whether they've been exposed to it before or not. Do you get that sense that there's kind of a mixed audience for you, from people who are like, "Yes, this exemplifies everything we love," to maybe some people who are going, "I have no idea what this kind of music is, but I like it"?

You know, it's funny, though, because some people will reach out and say, "Oh, I love your music, but take your nose ring out." It's like a lot of people with opinions, and opinions are like buttholes, and everyone's got one. There's that conservative group that sometimes I tend to pick up because of that old sound that I have. And I am more relatable probably with their children than them, in a sense, where my style is flamboyant and I have piercings, I have a gold tooth, I have tattoos. Honestly, those things are so old, and those are the sort of things that have been around longer than most things. So that's also what's baffling at times - people do think that they're right and they think that that's what's how things should be, and in reality it's not. And some people need to fucking get their head out of their ass and fucking just either like it or don't, and if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it. ... I definitely keep people talking, and I'm OK with that. I'm OK with someone liking me and I'm OK with somebody not liking me.

What was the appeal of the festivals that hooked you into this particular melange of music?

It's not something that you go and you're like, "Hey! I'm playing this festival!" It's more like you go to be able to hear all the musicians, because everyone plays fiddle or guitar or mandolin or banjo and... I don't know. I just love those instruments. I love instruments that you don't have to plug in. And then if, like, we don't have electricity, do you want to hang out with the electric guitar player and the electric bass player, or the upright bass or the acoustic guitar player? So it's like, so much respect for that style of music, for that reason. For me as a person, when cords and electricity get involved, it gets a little harder.

Trail of Flowers coverart
Trail of Flowers coverart

You recently played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. Was that cool for you?

Yeah, I love the Grand Ole Opry, and I hope to be a member one day. I'm gonna keep going back and playing. I love the old Nashville, like the "Hee-Haw" era and those shows... I just love it. That's what made me fall in love with country music.

You're on Zach Bryan's self-titled album, on the song "Holy Roller," and you will be opening some huge shows for him.

I feel like that's his "friends" record, because there's so many of his homies and friends that are just there being a part of the record, and I think that's beautiful.

How did Bryan become enamored of what you do?

Well, we were playing the same festivals and he would come and watch my show side stage. And then, after Railbird (in Lexington, Kentucky), he messaged me and said, " I have this song; I would love for you to be on it." And then he sent it to me and I got goosebumps all over my body and I knew that I had to be a part of it. Those are my pull-the-trigger moments, whenever I get body goosebumps from a song or from an artist; it means that I should be working with them. I love that song. I love how gentle I get to be on that song. I like to show my fans too as well that I am very intense, but I can also be very gentle.

At your record release party in L.A., you announced what your favorite song was off your new album, and also your least favorite song. Your favorite was "I Could Drive You Crazy."

Yes. I love it because it's coming from a place of admitting your strengths and your weaknesses. It's like, "I can't do this - but I can drive you crazy." I think that's something that a lot of people need to lean in more and realize our strengths and our weaknesses, so then we can find people around us with the strengths that we need.

And then you said your least favorite was "Wish You Well." Is that maybe because that's probably the saddest song on the album?

Yeah, that's exactly the reason for that: I'm sort of towards the end of my sad era. Everybody loves a sad song, but that's just the condition that we are put in. It's not even 100% our fault. That's just how it is. Once you realize what's really going on behind the grand scheme of everything, like how in the U.S. the rich keep getting richer, and the people in charge keep getting more money, and then they use the tax money for things that we don't need or want... I just think that it's important to think about something to look forward to and something brighter, something more beautiful.

You did say in an interview that it was a breakup that got you started writing songs.

It was definitely a breakup that got me started writing songs. And I guess once you find a good vein, you don't really wanna tap another one because you're there; you found it. But I'm in a positivity sort of flip side. Like, instead of people saying "That's sick!," I want people to say, "That's healthy!"

You have a song on the new album called "Dollar Bill Bar." Did you have any real bar in mind with that one?

Well, it makes me think of honestly of one of those generic beach bars, where they've got the dollar bills hanging up everywhere. The first bar that actually comes to mind is in South Florida, Key West - there's this bar downtown that Ernest Hemingway used to hang out at a lot. I don't know 100% what that bar is, but if anyone knows where it is and they want to message me about it, I'd love that.

The one song you have on the album that you didn't write is...

"Chittlin' Cookin' Time in Cheatham County." Say that three times fast. It's actually very old. It's a slave song from back in the day. That's something that I love to talk about because I don't think people need to forget, and society wants you to forget. It happened, and we can't let this happen again. And we don't have to go "viva revolution!" right now, but that's kind of where I tend to float a lot, because I just think that we have such a brighter future, and the way that things are, it doesn't look like a bright future, and it's sad and it's depressing.

So you're conscious of bringing joy into people's lives.

I know that my music does that and I love that so much. I am a healer, and I know that I'm here to help heal in some sort of way. If not just myself, then there's a lot of people around me, and I want to be a part of the solution. I mean, people just look at the (present) day, and they don't look at years down the road. We're so self-serving and stuck in our heads, we're like egomaniacs, and I don't know - I just think that we need a better infrastructure; we need better leaders. I want to be a part of a brighter future for our children.

Your music hasn't been overtly political, but you're obviously concerned about the state of the world. You have a song called "American Dreaming." Would your vision of the American dream cause you to get politically involved in an election year?

I think that they're left and right wings of the same bird. I think regional voting's very important, because it affects you immediately, and I think that you can actually vote people in. It's not like you're like, "Oh, I guess I'll pick the lesser of the evils," which is how it is every fucking presidential election. It is not like you get to actually pick someone and be like, "OK I want you to run." No, they always keep it in their family, in some sort of fucking weird bloodline shit...

I don't even know if I'll ever have kids, and that's OK, because I'm too terrified to have children right now. They're literally feeding us poison, constantly, consistently, in our food and our products, and in reliable places, too. Like where they used to have butter ingredients, now they're cutting corners, and they know what they're doing and they're poisoning us. There's some seasonings now that they find all these heavy metals in there, when you go get dishes from Target and Walmart. It's like, what are you doing? We're not led by humans. Humans care about people; they care about the planet.

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