Written by Sadie Almgren & Edited by Avery Carey. All photos by Avery Carey.
In March of 2022, I dragged a few friends to the Chapel, a 400-person capacity music venue in San Francisco’s Mission District, to see Sierra Ferrell. The venue was far from full, and I found myself leaning my elbows on the edge of the stage as Sierra and her band stood 3 feet away from me, serenading the audience with a nearly two hour long set. Just over a year later, in April 2023, I walked into a sold out show at Denver’s 1,600-person capacity Ogden Theater, filled to the (cowboy hat) brim with folks absolutely stoked on Sierra.
A lot can change in a year. Especially for Sierra Ferrell, as her song, “In Dreams,” made it big on TikTok, her Youtube fame has grown from channels like Western AF and GemsOnVHS, and she recently made her Grand Ole Opry debut in December of 2022. Now playing large festivals and preparing to release her sophomore album (following the success of her debut, “Long Time Coming”), Sierra has come a long way from her roots of busking in freight-train boxcars. Despite all this, as I noticed at this recent show, throughout all this time, she hasn’t really changed much. Well…maybe her hair has gotten bigger and her outfits more sparkly, but her authentic charm, personality, songwriting sensibilities, and, most notably, vocal style have stayed true to herself as she has broken into the Nashville scene (for better, or for worse) and onto the Spotify accounts of folks who don’t actively seek out the undercurrents of old-time style music.
On the evening of third Sunday, SoCC Co-General Manager, good music taste haver, and friend, Avery, and I skedaddled our way up to Denver to catch Sierra’s show. Missing the opener (Minnesotan folk band, The Cactus Blossoms), Avery and I made our way into the Ogden Theater to find it absolutely packed with mostly millennials, dressed up in their finest denim, fringe, and Earth-toned Western wear. We spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a place to stand where we could see as everyone was waiting for Sierra to take the stage. After doing a full lap of both upstairs and downstairs, we settled on standing towards the back of the floor standing section, situated next to Sierra Ferrell superfans, Marcos and Kyle, who quickly introduced themselves and repeatedly made sure that we could see the stage throughout the show.
In classic bluegrass fashion, a single, old-time style microphone sat in the center of the stage, adorned in pink roses, as if prepared for an earthly seance. Sierra moseyed her way onto the stage, to the crowd’s absolute delight, with her Dolly Parton style big hair crowned with the same pink roses. Her band followed her onstage, consisting of three dudes all adorned in matching dark pants, button-up Western shirts, and suede hats. Despite the way in which Sierra very obviously stood out visually and her name and face embellished tickets, marquees, and merchandise, this show was not all about her, as she often stepped back from the microphone to stand equally with her band. Sierra’s band was tight, working together in a uniquely synergistic way. With an upright bass player, a mandolin ripper, someone trading off between fiddle and electric guitar, and Sierra playing acoustic guitar and fiddle, they collaborated to build rich, clean harmonies to complement Sierra’s dreamy vocals. The band spent the majority of the show huddled up while leaning in towards the single microphone, in spite of the huge stage the Ogden has to offer, physically exemplifying the spirit of bluegrass itself.
Opening with the upbeat “Silver Dollar,” “Give It Time,” and “Bells of Every Chapel,” Sierra and her band set a precedent for the rest of the set through their ridiculously connected and trusting stage presence and playing together, often kicking their legs or leaning in towards each other in perfectly choreographed unison. They were not afraid to give each other the time and space to solo, as well as working together to jam as a band. Regardless of the technical difficulty of Sierra’s quick guitar picking, she had a surprisingly chill presence. As she sang to the audience in a way that feels like she is singing to every single person individually as she looked around, like a kindergarten teacher reading a picture book to their class. Between songs during periods of instrument switches and tuning, Sierra talked uncharacteristically casually to the audience, the same way she would if there were five people in the room, let alone over a thousand. Needless to say, Sierra has a distinctive way of making a big venue feel amazingly intimate.
Sierra Ferrell’s music, however, does not strictly adhere to the bluegrass tradition. Early into the show, her band shredded “Why Did Ya Do It,” a song that has strong flavors of blues and calypso, and a groove that Avery suggested sounded like music in an old, been-there-forever-family-owned Italian restaurant, which I strongly agree with. After that, her band dove into “West Virginia Waltz,” playing a deliciously slower version of the waltz that calls back to Sierra’s home state and remembering an old lover who passed away. In these slower moments, Sierra’s performance was simply enchanting; the folks next to us commented on how she had the power to make anyone fall in love with her. And she did, as over the course of the show, we noticed the security guard (whose duty it was to stand on the stairwell and tell people not to stand in the walkway, rather inside the yellow line painted on the ground) fall for Sierra; by the end of the show, he had a huge smile across his face as he clapped and stomped along more enthusiastically than most folks who bought tickets.
Sierra interspersed a dynamic variety of covers throughout her setlist, such as a dramatic rendition of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (a song that dates back to 1925, originally written by Charlie Poole accompanied by the North Carolina Ramblers) that oscillated between being suspensefully slow and rowdy. They also played a jam-heavy cover of the Osborne Brothers’ “Lonesome Feeling” that strongly featured the mandolin and fiddle players ability to play fast (and, dare I say, dirty) and a fiddle-driven take on John Anderson’s “Years”. Through these covers, Sierra acknowledged the tradition-heavy nature of this kind of music, playing refreshing versions of songs written by folks who contributed to the evolution of Country and Western Music in the past 100 years.
Towards the latter half of the set, Sierra and her band played a number of new, unreleased songs, complete with Sierra’s down-to-earth and playful lyricism telling stories of staple American experiences (“Dollar Bill Bar”), dynamics of a relationship (“I Could Drive You Crazy”), and tales of what life was like when people relied on hunting for their food (“Fox Hunt”). Sierra’s newer songs make me nothing but absolutely psyched for her next record, as they exhibit more experimental instrumentation and new stories, while still feeling very quintessentially Sierra in terms of songwriting style and honest lyrics. From there, Sierra ended the show by playing the heavy hitters of Long Time Coming, allowing for the crowd to sing along with her. “Jeremiah”, first heard by many on GemsOnVHS on Youtube four years ago, was a sweet conversation between the guitar and fiddle, with interruptions of spicy mandolin jams. “The Sea” saw the whole venue bathed in wavering blue light as Sierra showed off just how much vocal control she has as she wailed and belted through this suspensefully jazzy song, complemented by the flavors of the electric guitar picking. With the vibes of a New Orleans brass band (sans all of the brass instruments, missing the trumpet of the recorded version when played live), during “At the End of the Rainbow”, Sierra cheekily accused the crowd as she sang, “At the end of the rainbow, you’ll be waiting for…me/You said that you loved me, but you had to leave.”
The final song, the deliciously catchy hit, “In Dreams,” began with Sierra slowly hinting at the main riff on her guitar, in response the crowd hooped and hollered, and consequently the band dove head first into a rowdy rendition of the song, ending with several self-proclaimed big finishes. Sierra punctuated these crescendos by the band moseying to the very edge of the stage, almost to the point of falling off, kicking their feet (Sierra’s featured the sparkliest cowboy boots on both sides of the Mississippi, which we marveled at for the entirety of the show).
Yet they were not quite finished. In celebration of his recent 90th birthday, Sierra graced us with a time-bending cover of Willie Nelson’s “Seven Spanish Angels” (this cover is now on Spotify, check it out!) as an encore. Most of this sung acapella or with extremely bare instrumentation, the honesty of Sierra’s voice provided a heartbreaking and sweet telling of a story of two outlaw lovers believing that God will spare them before they engage in a fight against lawmen, one of the lovers ultimately dying. During the chorus, Sierra’s band crowded in a huddle to sing delicately poignant harmonies in an otherwise dead silent room.
Whether it’s a room of 400 or 1,600, Sierra is nevertheless capable of transporting the audience back to a simpler time, with simply just good, honest music and showmanship, relying on nothing but pure musicianship and the capacity to build human connection. Sierra puts a clear effort into honoring musicians who contributed to the tradition of American folk music, working together with her bandmates and encouraging them to solo and jam on their own volition, and addressing the crowd as if we were a group of old friends sitting around a campfire. Through this, she emphasizes the collaborative and almost familial nature of folk music tradition. A musical style deeply rooted in history, Sierra’s authentic approach to her music (which has remained consistent over the increasing success of her career) not only continues this tradition itself, but is actively becoming a new landmark of this history. And we are all here to witness it.