Sierra Ferrell, Wild and Relaxed

When Sierra Ferrell performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live in January, making her national television debut, Kimmel, a Boston native, pronounced her last name in a way that sounded like the word feral. It was clearly just the way his New England tongue hit the note, but I laughed because even though I’ve studied her music closely and gotten to know her the past couple years, it never occurred to me how phonetically proximate her name is to a word that means wild, natural, untamed—and how beautifully fitting it is for someone who exhibits those exact qualities.

The song she performed on Kimmel that night, “Fox Hunt,” off her new album Trail of Flowers, dutifully checks those same boxes. Its frenzied, staccato fiddle and rhythmic ooh’ing—along with Ferrell’s knowing lyrics and otherworldly voice—put you right in the chase, on the run, leashed hounds pulling you “through the pine, through the cold river bend” toward the target, the fox, the “prize from the land.” And Ferrell’s hunt isn’t the refined sport of gentlemen; it’s a raw act of survival, a mother trying to provide. You feel the desperation throughout.

That spirit of wildness ripples and flows and roars across Trail of Flowers, released in March on Rounder Records. The album twists like a vine between adjacent musical styles and regional traditions, winding between bluegrass, honkytonk, folk, Spanish guitar stylings, New Orleans-infused gypsy music. It also traverses eras, slipping between modern, mid-century and the Middle Ages. Even the album cover’s dreamlike imagery, with an angelic, mythical Ferrell in repose conveys the theme. Indeed, as far as trails go, Ferrell’s is decidedly, brilliantly, the scenic route.

“Sierra is really different in lots of ways,” said Rounder President Mark Williams. “She’s obviously incredibly talented as a songwriter, vocalist, musician, and performer, but she has an extra quality about her that’s unfettered. She doesn’t have an artistic filter. She follows her emotion and a creative free spirit that other artists aren’t able to tap into, or that are hesitant to attempt.”

Ferrell grew up in West Virginia, but it wasn’t until she set out on her own—hitchhiking, train hopping, busking on the streets of Chicago, Seattle and New Orleans—that she truly understood the music traditions she had been born into. “I realized how special that type of music was,” she told me before playing the historic Warfield in San Francisco. “It made me proud of where I’m from. A lot of my music is based on traditions that have been around forever, that have been passed down for hundreds, even thousands of years, by word of mouth, word of fiddle, word of banjo. It’s so beautiful and I want to keep that alive.”

Trail of Flowers is testament to the knowledge that those traditions are in the safe hands of a loyal steward. The album follows her 2021 debut Long Time Coming, and several exquisite singles, including covers of “Coat of Many Colors” and “Seven Spanish Angels,” and a feature on a Zach Bryan song. On the new record, Ferrell’s deepening craftsmanship is on full display, and her free-spiritedness, now bolstered by experience and self-assuredness, gives the record a serene, confident vibe.

One of the outcomes of her artistic growth is that the music now reaches an even higher level of emotional resonance. Longing might be the most prevalent theme on the album. It’s a tradition unto itself in country music, maybe because the sensation is a complex one, like an emotional jambalaya, an ever-changing mess of different, often conflicting feelings that torture us, but also keep us moving forward.

Ferrell gets right to it in the opening song, “American Dreaming.” Ostensibly, it’s a lament to life on the road, but it can also be heard as a more universal anthem, a psalm about the exhausting pace of modern life, and the grief we all feel over losing our connection to loved ones and ourselves. She sings solemnly: “I’m losin’ touch with all my friends//The ones who remind me who I am,” and concludes, “I never seem to get no rest.” The song aches with emotion, with longing for a slower, simpler, more homespun life.

In the track, “Why Haven’t You Loved Me Yet,” the longing stems from both unrequited attention, and the bracing loneliness from which you then long to escape. “I’m watchin’ you, how you run all over town//With another girl I see how they quickly come and go//I’m wonderin’ why it’s not me that you hold.” But Ferrell sets the lyrics to dancehall music, expertly stirring the dish, injecting emotional dissonance, and changing the nature of the longing.

With the closing number, “No Letter,” Ferrell gives expression to a yearning heart, but not a desperate one; a voice that knows its worth, but also understands that love is the antidote to these troubled times. “I have been lonely, I have been blue//No longer am I to see you//Knowing as soon as I see you face, I won’t be as mad at this wretched old place.”

9e106922 4de3 4b41 Bdd2 F85742ea5ac5

Zinzi Johnson

Perhaps Ferrell’s most radical act of independence is the way she deviates from the dominant cultural strains of anger and cynicism and victimhood, choosing instead to offer an emotion even more old-fashioned than her music: grace.

Two of the album’s creative peaks are the songs “Wish you Well” and “Money Train.” On the former, Ferrell narrates a haunting message to someone who has inflicted great pain, but daring forgiveness over resentment. “I know that you’d try to hide behind the lies you tell//Though you’ve hurt me/I still wish you well.” On “Money Train,” she tells the story of a frontier wife whose husband lacked the fortitude to handle the adventurous life he dreamed of and initiated for them both. It’s a familiar tale to anyone with frontier heritage, but one that rarely made its way into the popular storytelling of the West. Again though, breaking from the form, the wife in Ferrell’s song isn’t embittered, or tempted to reach for a six shooter. She absorbs the development with a what-else-did-you-expect resilience known to strong women.

Ferrell’s playful individuality isn’t some artistic posture. It’s who she is to the core, the first thing you notice about her. In 2020, Grayson Miller, owner and brewer of Crazy Gnome Brewery in East Nashville had no idea that the funny, down-to-earth patron who liked sour beers was Sierra Ferrell.

“We didn’t know how big she was for a long time, but at some point we realized she wasn’t just an East Nashville regular,” Miller said. They soon issued a special Sierra-inspired beer, Wild Mountain Peach. “With the beer she had a say in the recipe and everything. We love her free spirit and when the name of the beer was first suggested, it was a perfect fit.”

Barrie Kaufman has designed some of Ferrell’s performance outfits, including the forest nymph-inspired one she wore on Jimmy Kimmel. “Her sound is so different than anybody else’s, and I appreciate and respect how she wants to replicate that in her stage presence,” Kaufman said. “Her voice is enough to carry her. She could wear polo shirts and jeans and be a huge success. But she is so into projecting who she is through her outfits, and the outfits of her band. She’s always got ideas. You can almost see the creativity coming out of her pores. It’s like she glows with originality. You can pick her out of a crowd instantly. It resonates in how she dresses.”

Filmmaker Zinzi Johnson has made some of Ferrell’s most stylized music videos and recently directed a feature length film about her, Tears, named after the tragic Trail of Tears. The two grew so close in the early years that Ferrell became a surrogate parent of sorts for Johnson’s young daughter.

“I met Sierra while she was playing in the afternoon at a honky tonk, for tips out of a tin bucket. And I was like, who is this antebellum looking ghost with a face tattoo. I was very impressed. It’s hard to wrap your mind around her because she is so unlike anybody you know, and that is a precious thing. Sierra’s kindness is what allows for the wildness. Perhaps the two are connected, because if we allow ourselves to be authentic, then it’s easier to be kind,” Johnson said.

When I asked Ferrell about her kindness, and the depth of emotionalism on the record she said, “I’m a very emotional person, and I absorb a lot of emotions from people around me. Our hearts talk to each other before we do.” Ferrell can sense emotional disturbances, like knowing when a friend is troubled before any words are spoken. When we were together in San Francisco she showed me the goosebumps on her arm when I spoke lovingly about my 9-year-old kid.

Psychology has only recently begun to recognize such traits in people, categorizing certain individuals as “empaths” because of their higher than usual level of empathy. People with such capacity have long been stigmatized in western culture, and for many still, the frequencies that highly empathetic people can tune to are unsettling. “Our society discourages the ‘woo woo,’” Ferrell said. “But ancient people had that knowledge and acted on it.”

It’s Ferrell’s affinity for ancient knowledge, along with her creative free spirt, that produced the supernatural murder ballad “Rosemary,” a song she wrote years ago, but that is perhaps the most revealing one on the new album. In the snowglobe world Ferrell constructs, it’s not a monkey that needs to be cast off the protagonist’s back, it’s a witch. “When there’s a witch that is on your back//Makes it feel like the night will attack.” She goes on to spin a tale of love, betrayal and revenge that evokes the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Coming from the pen of the wild and fiercely perceptive Ferrell, the song could be an allegory, or something based on actual events.

Either way, in the end, when the witch is vanquished, the liberated narrator sings softly, “Now I feel like I can relax//Like I can relax//Like I, mmm, I can relax.”

Saddle Mountain Post welcomes your reactions or questions about this article