The only way the original roots of American country music have been able to endure in popular culture throughout all of these years is by finding willing hosts that allow the music to exist in their hearts, and then find ways to express that music in a manner that makes it relevant to modern ears.
Saving Country Music’s Artist of the Year award is not pegged to any current album or song releases, touring purses, or chart performance. It goes to the individual who most embodies the preservation and popularization of the most authentic version of country music that’s possible. Though there are plenty of others who are guilty of this in 2023, there was one artist that most embodied the ideas behind the effort to save country music.
Her name is Sierra Ferrell.
Like some sort of woodland creature captured in a folk story that’s more myth and legend than physical manifestation, Sierra Ferrell dazzles the mind and imagination, arrests you in a spell of charisma, and steals your attention until nothing else enters your thoughts except for the marvelous noise she makes so you can attain full immersion under her spell.
Sierra Ferrell is Appalachia roots music personified, and becomes the very characters she writes and sings about in her music when she takes the stage. In 2023, Sierra Ferrell took a giant leap forward for women in independent country and roots by finally giving us a headliner-level performer. Often this action of crowning a headliner results in an artist becoming aloof, isolated, and sometimes even arrogant. For Sierra Ferrell, the opposite was the case.
In 2023, there were numerous occasions when Sierra Ferrell illustrated her openness, and her sincere enthusiasm for the music. In February, she attended Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan Awards in Memphis, Tennessee, ultimately winning the award for Western Swing Female. She also turned in one of the gathering’s greatest performances at the Guesthouse at Graceland theater.
But this was just the beginning. By February, Sierra Ferrell was already beyond needing help from something like Ameripolitan, which looks to highlight performers that AmericanaFest and others won’t. Sierra had already won Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Awards in 2022, and was already booked for major appearances throughout 2023.
Sierra Ferrell didn’t just show up to Ameripolitan though. She actively participated in the festivities throughout the weekend, jamming with other performers into the early hours of the morning, modeling in the vintage fashion show, and generally immersing herself in the community.
A similar scenario transpired at the 2023 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Along with performing her own set, Sierra Ferrell sat in with the traditional bluegrass outfit of Jerry Douglas called The Earls of Leicester. Then many lucky folks camped out at the festival got to see Ferrell perform into the wee hours of the night and morning as she sang around campfires and serenaded the Colorado mountains.
Most memorably though, when Sierra Ferrell sang and played her new 2023 song “The Fox Hunt” at Telluride, it caused such a wave of uncontrollable euphoria throughout the crowd, it bust through like dam being compromised, and the crowd erupted in a manner rarely or ever seen aside from inebriated rave parties.
For half a hundred years, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival has held firmly to certain traditions and decorum for how the crowd is supposed to behave for performers ahead of the main headliners, namely that nobody is allowed to stand and dance directly in front of the stage so the folks near the front can be allowed to sit and enjoy the music early on. But Sierra Ferrell and “Fox Hunt” broke that 50 year tradition, and nobody was complaining.
It’s that nexus between preserving traditions and defying them that makes a Saving Country Music Artist of the Year. Sierra Ferrell’s music is fiercely tied to the folk and early country traditions of Appalachia and American music as a whole. But it’s the imagery she evokes that is wholly original and groundbreaking in the roots space, though still respectful of the medium. Her elaborate stage costumes and other flourishes have become a museum’s worth of iconic symbolism.
Some will point out that their experience with Sierra Ferrell in 2023 was somewhat different. For folks in the Upper Midwest, they were left frustrated when Sierra Ferrell cancelled on them, and for people in certain locations, it was the second time a Sierra Ferrell show had been postponed. The inconvenience that last minute cancellations cause for patrons has been a growing problem throughout music since the pandemic, and some of these cancellations are inexcusable.
But you also have to commend Sierra Ferrell for being so outspoken about the importance of mental health to musicians, and making sure our favorite performers don’t flame out or even worse. In previous eras, the mantra was the show must go on, and often with permanent, and sometimes catastrophic outcomes.
Sierra Ferrell is not perfect. She is beautifully flawed and gorgeously broken. This is part of her appeal. But don’t conflate that with her being inferior, or fragile. There is a spirit and a fire within her that is incapable of quenching. She’s like a controlled eruption on the stage, and that euphoric enthusiasm for the music is conferred to the audience.
It’s 2023, and about to be 2024. Old-time guitar and fiddle music is not supposed to be the du jour of the day. But through her sincere passion and spellbinding talent, Sierra Ferrell has flipped the script. In a moment of total technological immersion, folks are reaching out out for something real, something raw, something tied to earthen reality in tangible ways. They find that in the music and presentation of Sierra Ferrell.
Her saga is just beginning. 2024 will see a new album, and even bigger opportunities. But 2023 will always be the year that the world woke up to the majestic beauty of Sierra Ferrell.