From Unhoused Busker to Headliner: The Rise of Sierra Ferrell

Sierra Ferrell at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival

It’s finally over, and it’s just beginning. What’s over is the hard slog going from the hustling busking street performer, to a true headliner in independent country and roots music. What’s over is the search for a woman who can rival in buzz and popularity the likes of Tyler Childers, Zach Bryan, Cody Jinks, and Billy Strings from the independent ranks. What’s just beginning is an era where we see Sierra Ferrell at the top of festival posters as opposed to in the middle. What’s beginning is the launch of new artists inspired by Sierra Ferrell’s unique approach, style, and vision that has brought the very elemental roots of American music back to the forefront.

Sierra Ferrell will have a new album coming out at some point, perhaps later this year, and that will generate its own interest and opportunities to both assess where she is at the moment, and look forward at where Sierra could go from here. But now that it feels like she has ascended the mountaintop, let’s take a moment to reflect back on how we got here.

Sierra Ferrell grew up in a poor family in Charleston, West Virginia, and was raised by a single mother. She had two other siblings, one of which lived with her. The only entertainment source in the house was an old rabbit-ear-and-tin-foil television that sat on the floor. So Sierra spent much of her childhood outside, drawing inspiration and entertainment from her natural surroundings.

Since she was her mother’s only daughter, Sierra says she was doted upon and sheltered growing up. When she decided to start traveling around the country via train hopping and off the kindness of strangers, it was difficult on her mom. But it’s clear that path turned out pretty well for Sierra, even if it took some time to manifest.

The first public dispatch about the existence of Sierra Ferrell in the greater world was a somewhat strange stream of consciousness and poorly punctuated missive from singer/songwriter Todd Snider published on February 5th, 2014 in Magnet Magazine. Titled From the Desk of Hard Working Americans: Sierra Elizabeth Ferrell, it’s a bit difficult to digest or understand the underlying point. But in Todd Snider’s syntax-bereft way, his proclamation portended something positive for the Earth from this 20-something Sierra Ferrell he’d discovered.

in america today, and for a few decades now, there has been a gang very of young people
who leave society to travel on the the trains like tattoo faced and waisted walking children
the kerouacs, woodys, rambling jacks and billy joe shavers of our time.

…Todd Snider begins, concluding with…

they had a young woman about 20 some years old traveling with them
somebody told her to sing
and when she did i was so stunned by the song and the sound of it
that i called my wife and asked if i could bring her home
she is here now and so is her dog
and we made an amazing album on her just last week

Who knows where that album is now or if it’s worth listening to, but where many folks claim to be “first” on Sierra Ferrell (including Saving Country Music, who was the first to cover her from a journalistic perspective), Todd Snider beat everyone to it. Here’s a video of Sierra singing “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” with Todd Snider in February of 2015 in Chattanooga, TN.

Todd Snider might have been first on the Sierra Ferrell train, and it gives us a good reference point for the start of the Sierra Ferrell story arc. But it appears Sierra was not ready to settle down at this point. She still had many more trains to catch herself before she was ready to make music a serious occupation out of music in a purposeful direction with national and international implications.

Sierra ended up in New Orleans busking on the city’s historic streets, including in a troupe called Ladies on the Rag. Sierra played the washtub bass, and the group recorded a CD they sold out of the suitcase. Sierra cites her influences as far ranging as The Dillards to Dolly Parton, to bluegrass legends like Tim O’Brien, John Hartford, Flatt and Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin, to classic country like Hank Williams to The Carter Family, and Patsy Cline, to Billie Holiday, The Beatles, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, and Otis Redding.

More than anything though, era seems to be the most important to Sierra Ferrell as opposed to genre, and that’s what creates a cohesiveness across the difference genre influences she brings to her repertoire, with everything being steeped in an early swing/ragtime vibe. This started very early on.

Later in 2015, Sierra was caught in Colorado in a duo called the Feral Creek Sweethearts, entertaining folks with ragtime-style songs, and showing off the incredible voice that caught the ear of Todd Snider and would later go on to captivate the world.

Sierra Ferrell also cites her time in Seattle and attending the Northwest Folklife Festival to opening up her horizons both musically and career-wise. Seattle is also where she first saw Billy Strings perform at the Tractor Tavern. Just like Sierra, Strings is signed to Rounder Records, and the two collaborated on the song “Bells of Every Chapel.”

It was in Seattle that Sierra Ferrell says she decided she would finally move to Nashville, and attempt to start a music career. But it took some time. By early 2018, everything started to come together for Sierra. She started recording singles and releasing them on Bandcamp. Then perhaps one of the most important events happened in her career that codified her appeal internationally.

The YouTube video channel Gems on VHS first featured Sierra Ferrell in August of 2017 singing her song “Rosemary.” The video did very well, but it was the followup video when they captured Sierra singing her song “In Dreams” in New Orleans where the world began to awaken to the talent of Sierra Ferrell. The video took on a life of its own, and all of a sudden this underground busking singer from West Virginia was becoming a star.

But Sierra Ferrell didn’t immediately bust into the scene as an original artist when she first arrived in east Nashville. Though the east Nashville scene is very supportive of their own, it’s also notoriously difficult to break into. Not dissimilar to other artists that have started at the bottom, Sierra’s first step up the ladder was at the American Legion Post 82, and their Honky Tonk Tuesdays. Sierra fronted The Cowpokes, which are the American Legion’s house band. Sierra Ferrell cut her teeth in Nashville singing classic country covers from the ’40s to the ’60s.

Yet every opportunity Sierra had to showcase her own music, she would take advantage of. It was performing at the American Legion Post 82 that she got the attention of engineer and producer Stu Hibberd, along with 11-time Grammy-nominated engineer and producer Gary Paczosa who had ties to Rounder Records. They saw the potential in Sierra, and in the summer of 2019, she was signed to Rounder. And that wasn’t all. The manager behind the big rise of The Avett Brothers, Dolphus Ramseur, came on board.

“When she sings, it’s impossible not to listen and envision the beautiful mountains and luscious valleys of that wild and wonderful state,” Dolph said at the time. “Listen closely and you’ll hear the roaring rivers and haunting hollers of wild creatures and timeless characters. If you are within earshot of Sierra, her singing commands and dares you to listen.”

Keith Levy at the Paradigm Talent Agency also jumped on the team, saying, “We were blown away by Sierra from the moment we met her—her once-in-a-generation voice, but also the feeling that when you are with her, truly anything can happen. We are super excited to be working with Sierra. It will be a wild ride!”

This gave Sierra an A-Team of representatives that would allow her career to explode if everything went as planned, even though at the time she was still living out of her car. A month later when she played at the Mercy Lounge in Nashville as part of Americanafest, Sturgill Simpson was standing stage side, and was also hot on the Sierra Ferrell trail, hoping to get the opportunity to produce her Rounder Records debut. The word was out on Sierra Ferrell, even if a lot of the general public was still unaware.

Sierra eventually moved into a house with a few other people. But then the pandemic struck, and threw a monkey wrench into all of the big plans for Sierra Ferrell’s big debut record and subsequent tour schedule. Everything she had worked and planned for was now up in the air. As a free spirit, she was now confined in a small space with her career on pause, and Sierra admits it started to wear on her mental health. There’s a reason the Rounder debut was named Long Time Coming. It was released two years after she had signed to the label, on August 20th of 2021.

Since the pandemic and the release of Long Time Gone though, everything has gone just about perfectly. Sierra Ferrell continues to rack up the accolades and opportunities, but miraculously has not lost the spirit and openness that got her here. In February, she attended the Ameripolitan Awards, which is a ground level grassroots organization that supports up-and-coming acts. Sierra Ferrell didn’t need to spend time there. She had already ascended above that level. But she did anyway, and participated fully, including modeling in the fashion show, and jamming with folks into the wee hours of the night.

The same thing happened at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in mid June. Not only did Sierra Ferrell turn in a performance for the ages at the 50-year-old fest, she guested on the sets of other artists, sat for an interview with the local radio station KOTO, and according to accounts from the campground, stayed up until 5 a.m. singing and playing with regular folks.

Sierra Ferrell isn’t just leading the pack at the moment, she’s leading by example. She’s remained humble, and open, still working to built those personal connections that are essential in independent music, and that she started with by busking on street corners. Last summer when her tour schedule was at its most grueling, she was unafraid to talk about how it was getting to be too much for her, and she decided to take some time off instead of pushing through and potentially pushing herself over the limit—something other artists can learn about from Sierra’s example.

Sierra Ferrell is using her platform to highlight other deserving artists, and is already beginning to seed her own little universe of performers and side projects. Her former fiddle player Josie Toney has now gone solo, and just released a great new album called Extra. She’s taken the acoustic duo Two Runner under her wing, bringing them out on tour, and posting photos and videos with them.

She’s open to collaboration, from independent artists like Casey James Prestwood who recently released the song “Out of Place” with Sierra, to her recent hint that she wants to perhaps write or perform a song with Zach Bryan.

And just like we’ve marveled at artists such as the Turnpike Troubadours, Colter Wall, and others that have seen an improbable rise as a weary public looks for authenticity and sincerity in music is where this could all go from here.

But in this moment, it feels apt to congratulate Sierra Ferrell on her long-coming ascent and hard-fought victory, her surrogates and team that helped get her to this point, and also YOU, the grassroots fan, whether you believed in her from the beginning and told your friends and saw her in a venue with 30 other people, or you just found out about Sierra a few weeks ago and are now fully on board.

Sierra Ferrell has arrived, and music and the rest of the world is better off for it.

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Selected information about Sierra Ferrell sourced from Sierra Ferrell interviews with Lonesome Highway and Holler for this story.

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