Album Review – Sierra Ferrell’s “Long Time Coming”

photo: Alysse Gafkjen

Call it a blessing, call it a curse, or call it both. But some aspire to be something in music, and wish to have the spotlight shone squarely upon them, and labor intensively and study laboriously to achieve that goal … and then some are simply born with the gift to compel audiences, and couldn’t avoid the occupation even if they tried. It would be a cardinal sin. It’s their calling. They’re naturals—touched in that unique way. Often a little crazy, maybe even a little dangerous, it’s undeniable the talent they posses, the curiosity they pique, the infectiousness they sow, and the magic they deliver—effortlessly so in a way that is enviable, and virtually unattainable by all the rest of us. That’s why we can’t help but center our attention on them.

Such is the case for Sierra Ferrell, whose myth and mystique has preceded her for years now as this whimsical being who melds gypsy jazz and mountain music into an alluring and intoxicating concoction leaving lifted spirits and broken hearts in her wake. Todd Snider once wrote about her in 2014 after having discovered her hopping trains in West Virginia, describing his encounter more in poetry than prose, because that’s the only way to accurately describe Sierra. Rumors still swirl how Sierra was the muse for the song “Charleston Girl” written by Tyler Childers that was first featured on a Red Barn Radio live session in 2013. But nobody’s willing to confirm.

The first time yours truly saw Sierra Ferrell perform, it was at the Mercy Lounge in Nashville, and Sturgill Simpson was prowling around the wings of the place, wanting like the devil to produce her debut album for Rounder Records. He was ultimately denied. Everyone recognizes what Sierra Ferrell has, and wants to be a part of it. It’s like Janis Joplin in the 60’s. A lioness. Sierra isn’t just a singer and songwriter. She’s a force of nature.

Years of hopping trains, busking and bruising around the United States, being homeless with plenty of harrowing stories to tell has resulted in that real world authenticity baked into Sierra Ferrell’s West Virginia roots. Capturing the creative spirit of these dynamos in a recorded context is often difficult. But as the aptly-titled Long Time Coming illustrates, it’s not impossible.

A fairly wild romp through American roots music influences, and bolstered by a zesty and ambitious variety of instrumentation, Long Time Coming refuses to be categorized, aside from being distinctly Sierra. It starts with a rather suggestive shanty called “The Sea” with its watery saw and Sierra’s billowy vocals beaming you to a world of Chantilly lace and seafoam. “At The End of the Rainbow” delivers you to ragtime-era New Orleans, with blasts from horns and clarinet imbuing the experience with a Delta spirit. The accordion, drums, and Marc Ribot-style guitar of “Why’d Ya Do It” seats you right down in a French press cafe in southern France.

It’s not just the “what” of a Sierra Ferrel song, but the “when” and the “where” that ferries you away to somewhere well separated from the everyday mundanity to a colorful, lively place of enchantment. Steer credit towards producers Gary Paczosa and Stu Hibberd, and the musicians such as Chris Scruggs and fiddler Nate Leath who took Sierra’s ambitious vision for this album and made it manifest.

And don’t worry all you mountain pickers and rednecks out there, the lion’s share of Long Time Coming draws heavy on Sierra’s West Virginia roots, with ample fiddle and banjo backstopping her songs of love and testament, such as “Jeremiah” featuring Sarah Jarosz on banjo, “The Bells of Every Chapel” with Billy Strings on guitar, and two songs whose titles end in “Waltz.” You even get a Golden Era country tune in “Give It Time” complete with the double fiddle start off, and a backing chorus line.

The simple truth is that with so many of the most dynamic artists of any era, the studio may never do a fair service to representing the type of spellbinding rush that accompanies experiencing them live. And specifically with Sierra, this album was such a Long Time Coming and some of these songs have been out there for so long—especially the first two of the set, and perhaps some of the strongest of the album as well—it may not seize your attention similar to the buzz and mystique around her might have you expecting.

Make no mistake though, Sierra Ferrell is one of those one in a million artists born to do this, and bred to excel at it, and forged through real life experience. There is no affectation here. This is all Sierra Ferrell. Like Todd Snider who spied her potential some seven years ago, Tyler Childers who perhaps crossed paths with her in West Virginia, and Sturgill Simpson who wanted to throw his weight behind her, Sierra Ferrell is worthy to be regarded as a generational force in country and roots music.


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