Sierra Ferrell is standing in the middle of a vintage store in East Nashville, twirling a pair of leather Seventies-era shoes in one hand with a stack of jackets in the other. “Loafers!” she proclaims with the enthusiasm of someone hunting for gems and coming up with a rare quartz. She flips one over, inspects the chunky wood heel and then reluctantly places it back on the shelf. “Those look like they are going to hurt my back. I mean, it’s all downhill from here.”
This is hard to believe, because a few months ago Ferrell was dangling from the ceiling of Nashville’s Brooklyn Bowl in a circus hoop, singing in an embordered Nudie-style suit with a full face of clown makeup. In fact, in the time since the release of her 2021 label debut, Long Time Coming, Ferrell has emerged as one of country and roots music’s most fascinating and fastest-rising artists. Once busking on the streets of New Orleans, she’s since won Emerging Artist of the Year at the Americana Honors and Awards, walked the Grammy red carpet and booked a sold-out headlining tour, including two stops this spring at the Ryman Auditorium and stadium dates supporting Zach Bryan. Her new album, Trail of Flowers, will be out on March 22, but she still only just got health insurance.
“I mean, I just got it back in like, Jaycember,” she says in her West Virginia drawl, walking to the register and plopping a pile of clothes on the counter. “Jaycember….was it January? December? I don’t know. I made up a month.” Doesn’t matter: When she says it, you believe it. Ferrell speaks — and sings — in her own language, blending country, bluegrass, jazz, pop, old time, and ragtime, with a stage aesthetic that’s like a hillbilly Moulin Rouge. Trail of Flowers expands on this finely-honed sound but makes way for drums, Beatles-influenced kiss-offs, and fiddle-heavy love laments, with her mystical, magnificent vocals at the center. It’s an album that wants to connect us to the land, to our history, and to each other. And like the vintage clothes she scours and spins into stage wear, it makes the old traditions feel interchangeable from the new.
It’s an early spring afternoon in Tennessee, where Ferrell moved 10 years ago, and after hauling her purchases to the car (a bomber jacket and a leather belt bag), she heads to a coffee shop next door. Trail of Flowers has just been finished, and Ferrell is already thinking about what she can do next: Namely, write some happier songs. “I’m wired in a way that I’ve had to learn to live in sadness,” she says, sitting down on a corner stool in her baby-blue suit and cream-colored hat. “Learning ways to rewire that is hard, and singing sad stuff all the time is hard. I’ve been trying to write things now as more of a mantra, and manifesting the future. Or, as I like to say, womanfesting.” She laughs. “Men always have to get their way in there.”
Trail of Flowers is not so much an album of sadness as it is about letting go — letting go of lovers who don’t love back, dreams that feel like nightmares and modern ways of life that keep us disconnected from the world around us. Ferrell still primarily creates solo, but for Trail of Flowers, she started to co-write: two songs with songwriter Melody Walker, who plays in Bertha, a Nashville-based Grateful Dead cover band that performs in drag (Ferrell once did a stint in a Dead cover band herself), and another with the bluegrass artist Lindsay Lou.
“Seven years or so ago my pride would get in the way,” Ferrell says. “I just wanted to do it myself. But these days, it’s more enjoyable and fun to write with other people.” It’s also helped her keep things interesting. Though much of Ferrell’s music is about preserving traditional sounds and instruments, she’s not at all interested in following some kind of prescribed roadmap about what is and isn’t authentic enough. “I think it’s very cool to have a group of people who want to keep things alive,” she says, pondering the word “traditionalism.” “But it’s really the attitude about it all that can get weird. Just don’t be hateful about it.”
Ferrell has been writing for other artists, too, and working with both Diplo and Roc Nation on different projects that are very decidedly outside of those traditional country walls. She’s even been practicing rapping. “I want to let other people know, younger generations coming up, that you can do whatever you want,” she says. “Don’t think you only have to be one way. You can be it all.”
Growing up poor in West Virginia, the options weren’t always so varied. Raised by a single mom, Ferrell spent most of her free time outside and listening to music while singing along — sometimes commercial jingles on the television, sometimes Nineties rock radio, sometimes Shania Twain. She found herself having to play the role of the adult more often than she should have. “I had to grow up pretty fast,” she says. “I would hide in music, and in emotions. I had a lot of trauma I’m still working on today, but music was like a weapon for me.”
Ferrell took a couple of semesters of guitar training in high school, but she still considers herself “more of a vocal shredder than an instrument shredder.” Listening to records from the Carter Family helped hone her picking style, but mostly she worked to refine her voice. It’s a keen instrument, capable of wild scales and time-warped tones, somehow just as evocative of Fiona Apple as of an old-time singer, but still distinctly and completely her own.
In her twenties she left West Virginia and headed out across the country, traveling by train and busking wherever she went. Her mom made her take a flip phone on the road, but she tried to disconnect. She still does. “We’re just not supposed to be in touch with so many people,” Ferrell says. She worries about this a lot, and about our modern inability to hunt and gather and pull our own nourishment from the earth. Trail of Flowers’ first single, “Fox Hunt,” is an ode to this way of life, while also paying tribute to where she came from. It was written in part to honor her friend, John R. Miller, and his band the Fox Hunt, whose music helped Ferrell fall irrevocably in love with traditional country. “I was in my jam band era and ready to branch out,” she says. “It spoke to me, and I wanted to be part of it. This is me looking back and tipping my hat and saying thank you for the inspiration.”
Her travels took her to New Orleans and Seattle, where she played in several bands including a street-performing ragtime group called Ladies on the Rag and various busking duos and trios (videos can still be found on YouTube, some from over a decade ago). Eventually she released two albums on Bandcamp, but it was her live shows that caught the attention of labels in Nashville. Visually, she’s always pushing the limits of what an artist can do onstage. For her annual New Year’s Eve show at Brooklyn Bowl, she recruited circus performers to wield lassos and swallow swords. “It would be cool to work in touch, maybe even sensory stuff,” she says. “Flavored bubbles, something that drops from the sky that is edible?” She perks up at the idea of that edible item being of the hallucinogenic variety. “Ohhh, mushrooms! One of the first bands to do that. Let’s go!”
Ferrell signed to Rounder Records in 2018, after gaining a following for her appearances at the American Legion post in East Nashville. “I clearly remember going to see her the first couple of times and frantically looking around to see if there were any other labels in the room,” says Gary Paczosa, Grammy winner and SVP, A&R, at Rounder. “It felt like I was holding onto the biggest secret ever. I could not have been more taken by an artist. She has a depth of artistry that I’ve personally only come across a few times in my career. She is as unique as they come, with unlimited talent and artistic potential.”
Long Time Coming came out in 2021, which Paczosa produced (he also co-produced Trail of Flowers, alongside Eddie Spear, known for his work with Bryan and Brandi Carlile). Tours with Shakey Graves and shared stages with Billy Strings and festival gigs followed fast, and dates began to sell out everywhere Ferrell went. Kelly Clarkson even covered her song “Jeremiah” on her talk show. After more than a decade of playing to a couple of people on a street corner and living a nomadic life that was as difficult as it was free, she was mentally exhausted. Her constant drive to keep creating exacerbated it all. “I’m just a little rough on my nerves because I feel like I haven’t rested enough,” she says. “Because even when I’m not working it’s like, ‘Management needs this, do this.’ More money, more problems, so they say.”
Here, less than five minutes into our coffee, she’s approached by a fan (“I’m sorry if it’s weird,” he says. “I work here!”). This will happen again later, and she is figuring out how to live with an unexpected level of notoriety. Both times, she engages in conversation as if she’s known them before, chatting about Billy Strings and her upcoming gigs. It can be taxing, and in the coming months she will announce the cancellation of some shows to attend to her mental health. Despite some disappointed ticket holders, she felt it was imperative to not just take care of herself, but model self-care for everyone, musician or not.
“We’re all just people, and we’re all going through a lot of pain,” she says. “Mental health is super important, and therapy. Try it all. What’s the worst that happens? You get healed?”
Months later, Ferrell is on the road again, headed through Kentucky toward her home state and behind the wheel alone. The summer didn’t go as planned, but that’s fine. She put healing at the forefront, took time when she needed it and got herself in the best mental state she could to release Trail of Flowers into the world. She played some new songs live at festivals, and the reception was rapturous, with some in the audience knowing the lyrics to “Fox Hunt” before it was even officially released. Today she’s on her way to Charleston, West Virginia, to play an event marking the anniversary of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill crisis where she will talk, sing, and raise awareness about a tragedy that has left the community still reeling from the disaster.
She wants to do more like this as time goes on, speaking out about things she believes in and fundraising where she can, specifically for supplies at Border Control, for families in Palestine and those back home in West Virginia who still don’t have reliable access to safe drinking water. “Our leaders keep putting us in these toxic situations, and these famous people are like, Nike, Nike, Gucci. Fuck that,” she says. “We’re just a third world country with a Gucci bag.” She stops for a minute to think. “I know one hundred percent me talking about this stuff is going to make me lose fans, but I think it’s super important people talk about this. You have all these millionaire artists who can literally fix a whole fucking town and not have homeless people? I want to help more, and I want more people who are famous to actually do stuff.”
Trail of Flowers finds Ferrell very much in this mindset, at odds with the commercialism of the modern world. “Nothing lasts forever in today’s world though it seems,” she sings on “Rosemary,” “when there’s so much evil.” It’s a song that’s been floating around Ferrell’s catalog for years, as has the jazzy, fiddle-driven “I’ll Come Off That Mountain.” Others, like “American Dreaming,” could just as easily be about a truck driver as they could a tired-out touring artist, while “Money Train,” with appearances from Lukas Nelson and Chris Scruggs, skewers a lover who is always chasing the next best thing.
The newest single, “Dollar Bill Bar,” is a downright delightful country romp with a composed pop sheen — Ferrell was shooting for something that conjured the Beatles, one of her favorite bands (her good buddy Nikki Lane sings on the tune, alongside Kristen Rogers). “Chitlin’ Cooking Time in Cheatham County” is the album’s only cover, a Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith song featuring Scruggs on steel and guitar, that helps her feel connected to a way of life most have long left behind. Ferrell thrives at folk and bluegrass festivals, where it’s not uncommon to have a whole repertoire of songs that are a hundred years old, if not more, and she plans to open future shows with a section of old-time music. “I just want to bridge the gap,” she says, between the sounds of the past and the music of the future. “Open people’s eyes to a different genre, so they take a rabbit hole experience from there.”
She doesn’t particularly dislike the direction of modern mainstream country music, but there is one thing that pisses her off: Jelly Roll. “I like his name, but I hope he knows who the original Jelly Roll is,” she says, referring to jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton. “You type that name in Google, and he’s the one who comes up. That’s a thing I’ve noticed, too. On YouTube, if you type in an African-American song, you get a bunch of white people who have covered it. A lot of my music comes from the blues and ragtime and I try to talk about it because I don’t want to be like, ‘That’s my idea.’” She drifts off for a second. “Sorry,” she laughs. “I just saw a police offer and my mind went ‘beep!’”
Much of Ferrell’s connection to both the traditional and modern country worlds comes through the Grand Ole Opry. She made her debut last year, and she’s been playing any chance she gets, most recently stepping in for Connie Smith. “I eventually want to be a member,” she says. “I don’t know how many shows you have to play, but I am down to do as many as you need.” She’s in high demand with her peers, too. She recently appeared on Zach Bryan’s song “Holy Roller” (“a sweetheart,” is how she describes him), and on a reinterpretation of Margo Price’s “Change of Heart.”
Today, she’s particularly excited about the looks she is putting together with her collaborators, including the creative director known as Mama Hot Dog, for an upcoming appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Her visuals are always stunning and whimsical, full of headdresses and jeweled eyebrows and cupids-bow lips, which she hopes help people realize that, when it comes to artistry, there really shouldn’t be any bounds. And she’s writing new songs already. They’re not quite happy yet, but she’s trying.
“I need to tell myself to remember that it’s a hot air balloon ride,” she says, before hanging up and finishing the rest of the drive through the West Virginia mountains. “It’s not a rocket ship.