From hopping trains to crushing on Kimmel, Sierra Ferrell's roving country roots help her go places

On a hotel rooftop in Hollywood, facing the glitterati tucked into the hills, Sierra Ferrell explained how to pack for a clandestine ride in a boxcar.

Some dry goods. A couple jugs of water. Cans of ravioli and an opener. “And of course, some alcohol,” she said, her grin revealing a gold cap on her right-front tooth.

The singer-songwriter, 35, began freighthopping when she was 23 years old after befriending some itinerant musicians in her hometown Charleston, W.Va. She said she’s ridden about 30 trains in the manner immortalized by Great Depression imagery and Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” Which is to say: it ain’t Joe Biden’s beloved Amtrak.

“There are people who go out there and romanticize it, which is understandable,” she said. “But it could be dangerous and the people could be dangerous.”

Contrary to crust-punk tradition, Ferrell didn’t dress in black or sport a raccoon tail. “I was more of a hippie,” she said, but one that wasn’t noticeably grimy. “I would carry baby wipes and clean my face and hands,” she added. “Sometimes people would be like, ‘I don’t believe you ride trains.’ And I was like, ‘Why? Because I’m not dirty enough?!’”

On March 22, Ferrell released “Trail of Flowers,” her fourth full-length album and her second for Americana label Rounder Records. The release finds the singer a lifetime away from her peripatetic origins. However, the free spiritedness of her music — an uncommon blend of old-time bluegrass, country, ragtime, folk and jazz, anchored by her powerhouse vocals that by turns recall Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Bessie Smith — remains largely the same. The incorporation of drums is the most marked change on the new album. They were added because Ferrell desired a bigger sound, as if to mirror her rising profile.

By being uniquely herself, the singer has amassed a coterie of prominent admirers. “I love Sierra’s voice and think she’s a great interpreter of songs,” the musician Margo Price said via email. Price asked Ferrell to sing on a stripped-down acoustic version of her song “Change of Heart,” released in 2023, and emphasized the importance of women in Americana sticking together.

“Absolutely I feel a kinship with her,” Price said. “She is doing her own thing and has a style all her own. It’s so important to lift up new artists instead of feeling like they’re competition.”

Ferrell grew up poor and was raised, along with her two brothers, by her mother, who married eight times. Her dad legally changed his name to avoid paying child support. In spite of it all, she was an upbeat, animated kid who was “always making noises, making drumbeats, humming, singing along to commercials and theme songs.”

“My family, sometimes they’d be like, ‘SHUT UP!’” she explained. “I could be a lot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was preparing for this. It was like my soul already knew what I was here to do.”

She learned about American musical traditions by attending folk music festivals, such as the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in West Virginia (aka Clifftop), where she became enamored with songs that were “hundreds of years old,” she said. She also lived in a van in New Orleans, where she played on the streets for eight years and soaked in the city’s music, new and old.

Before moving to Nashville, where she still lives, and launching as a solo artist, Ferrell was a vagabond who traveled between the Big Easy and Seattle. Along the way, she busked on streets from Colorado to California, and occasionally popped up on YouTube in nascent collectives including a ragtime group called Ladies on the Rag and a duo called the Feral Creek Sweethearts.

Singer-songwriter Todd Snyder was the first notable musician to praise Ferrell’s genre-hopping style and big voice. In 2014, he wrote a stream-of-consciousness screed for the magazine Magnet titled “From the desk of hard working Americans: Sierra Elizabeth Ferrell.” He paired Ferrell with his producer Eric McConnel and the two made the records “Pretty Magic Spell” and “Washington by the Sea,” which Ferrell self-released on Bandcamp. Snyder was also supposed to take her out on tour, a plan that was “yoinked out from under me,” Ferrell explained.

“That kind of honestly devastated me,” she said. “It hurt my feelings and so I kind of disappeared from that scene for a minute. I started traveling and riding trains and hitchhiking again.”

Today, Ferrell has a marketing and public relations team, and a budget that allows her to stage elaborate live shows with costumes and visuals executed by her creative collaborator Bobbi Rich, who’s also worked with Price and Brittany Howard. Ferrell’s aesthetic, like her music, is a singular blend that joins past with present: 19th century carnival-core, art nouveau huntress, cosmic cowgirl, anime pixie and futuristic Las Vegas showgirl. The common denominator is Ferrell’s singular ability to blend fantastical flash.

On this day, she wears a two-piece vintage cowgirl ensemble under a ’70s-era leather coat with a fur collar. The sides of her long hair are set in two victory rolls like a 1940s pinup model. Ferrell pointed to the hoops in her ears and the chains around her neck. “I have gold and stuff now because of the money I’ve earned,” she said. “But coming from nothing, money isn’t that important to me. I don’t need this stuff.”

“She’s sort of the new version of what Dolly is,” said Alejandro Rose-Garcia, the Austin, Texas-based musician known as Shakey Graves. The pair met when Ferrell opened a 2022 Shakey Graves tour where Rose-Garcia was immediately struck by her voice, which he described as “flawless,” “timeless” and like “recorded music.”

Rose-Garcia invited Ferrell to perform on “Ready or Not” from his 2023 album “Movie of the Week,” a song inspired by the pop spirit of “Islands in the Stream,” Parton’s enduring duet with Kenny Rogers. The musician draws parallels between Ferrell and Parton, including their humble backgrounds, preternatural singing voices, work ethics, bold choices and aesthetics, and progressive stances. He also pointed to the inevitable friction between artistic fulfillment and commercial demands that many rising musicians, himself included, have faced. “Sierra is very sensitive to that stuff, as she should be,” he said. “I think she doesn’t want to be typecast in a way that’s going to hold her down in the future.”

In 2022, Ferrell was named Emerging Artist of the Year at Nashville’s Americana Awards, and made her Grand Ole Opry debut the same year. Her 2024 tour includes four arena stops with country megastar Zach Bryan, an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and many sold-out dates. The day after this interview, on Jan. 18, she made her late-night television debut on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

In interviews Ferrell has attributed her recent whirlwind rise, which also includes an appearance on Bryan’s “Holy Roller” — with about 40 million streams on Spotify — to the teams that came with her signing to Rounder.

“I genuinely do feel that way because I know so many talented people…who should be where I am but aren’t,” she said. “I’m not going to discredit my talent and hours of working to get myself where I am musically, but I think there is definitely a political side to this sort of thing.”

To help herself remain grounded, Ferrell plays charity gigs centered around her concern for the environment. In January, she performed a concert in Indianapolis whose proceeds in part benefited a children’s literacy program through the public libraries. Six days before that, on Jan. 9, she headed home to West Virginia to raise awareness about clean water.

She recalled the 2014 chemical contamination of the Elk River, which runs through her hometown. It left 300,000 West Virginia residents without clean water to drink or bathe in; businesses, schools and hospitals in eight counties were forced to close or enact emergency measures. Nearly 10 years later, West Virginia’s drinking water ranks among the nation’s worst.

“It just shows how fragile our systems are and how much we really rely on our leaders and they keep letting us down,” Ferrell said. She looked up toward the Los Angeles sky and sighed. “Like the smog here is insane. It’s all part of the systems that have been put in place for us.”

Ferrell expressed her belief in an artist’s duty to speak out, and insisted that music should be deeper than the industry standard of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. She called those cliches “distractions” and “low frequency vibrations.” “We need to help vibrate people up here,” she said, placing her hand near her heart. “Music is medicine for people.”

During our conversation, it became clear that Ferrell feels the spiritual, emotional and physical worlds around her very deeply. She often referenced vibrations and frequencies and how they connect people to people, and people to the natural world.

Ferrell said she’s the most “introverted extroverted” person she knows and “it’s sort of like a burning a candle from both ends mentality, but accidentally.” Like many who feel very deeply, she also suffers from bouts of depression. “I honestly should be put on medication, but I refuse to do it,” she said. “I’ve been put on medications before and they just make me feel less. I have a hard time loving people and expressing love.”

During sound check at Jimmy Kimmel’s studio in the cartoonish heart of Hollywood Boulevard, Ferrell lived up to her hippie origins. In tie-dye yoga pants and a button-down denim shirt, she and her five-piece band ran through her song “Fox Hunt” three times, each vocal performance more powerful than the last. The bluegrass-centric tune positions Ferrell on fiddle alongside lead fiddler Oliver Craven, while drums, mandolin, banjo and bass flesh out its updated sense of tradition.

Backstage in the green room Ferrell’s band, whose members have taken to calling her “sissy” — the Southernism for “sister” — mugged for the camera, taking selfies to send back home to Nashville. Ferrell joined them in front of a large “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” sign for musical family photos.

Though the group vibe was palpable joy, the energy in Ferrell’s dressing room was a bit more complex. As Rich glue-gunned flowers to Ferrell’s costume, the pair explained their vision, which began as a mood board and manifested as a large animated backdrop of psychedelic trees, flowers, fields and clouds that danced behind Ferrell and her band on stage.

“I want this to be a voice for the forest,” the singer said, twirling the flower-dotted braids that fell around her face like vines on a tree limb. The costume she had slipped into — a green corset with poofy pink sleeves, green hot pants, tights covered in vines and knee-high boots — landed somewhere between Robin Hood and Sailor Moon. “Thank you!” Rich said when I mentioned the words “woodland nymph” and “anime.”

Ferrell and Rich headed to the stage to shoot photographs in front of their animated flower-power creation. Soon, Ferrell and her band would make their television debut, performing “Fox Hunt” for a studio audience.

The song’s lyrics, hinged on the image of a humble rural hunter “just trying to survive,” double as an analog for Ferrell’s journey to date, from West Virginia vagabond to Americana queen. Standing in what may be the least-natural setting possible, she emanated the look and power of the Greek goddess-hunter Artemis. Though her kill was metaphorical, it may be more nourishing. Three and a half minutes of network television can swiftly upgrade an entire career.

“Shoot for the moon, sissy bird!” Rich said as Ferrell posed in profile, her fiddle in one hand and bow in the other. Then, as if to call her next shot, she pointed her bow skyward and smiled.

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