4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
The bluegrass world recognizes the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth in 2011. While many have paid tribute to the master by both duplicating his sound and taking his music in new directions, few have accomplished so much at a tender age as Sierra Hull.
Bluegrass is a music of youthful protégés, and few have impressed to the degree that Sierra Hull has since her Rounder debut appeared three years ago: confidently maturing, Sierra Hull is poised to provide artistic leadership for many more.
Daybreak is a powerful bluegrass recording. It will not appeal to all, and it will likely receive criticism from some for being too smooth, too Krauss-like in its approach to acoustic music, and darn it, too girly.
From its opening notes, the album certainly sounds similar to the distinctive qualities most closely associated to the recordings of Alison Krauss & Union Station. The mentorship—from near and far—that Hull has apparently received from the Union Station crew no doubt contributes to this influence.
Barry Bales steps into the producer position on this album, a post Ron Block previously held. Block adds guitar to a couple tracks while Dan Tyminski sings on a couple others. With Bales maintaining the bottom end on most of the songs, it should surprise no one that there are similarities to Hull’s and Krauss’s music. Heck, there is even a John Pennell song (but no Robert Lee Castleman) included!
Still, Hull most obviously has developed an individual musical personality, and this comes through on almost every cut. Hull wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s twelve cuts, and her songs are as memorable and enjoyable as those of songwriters many years her senior. “All Because of You,” a fine Hull original, has a lovely folk-tinged vocal performance, while “Bombshell” is a sweet and playful little instrumental that features the tight quartet of Hull and Bales joined by Bryan Sutton and Stuart Duncan.
The album reveals Hull’s flexibility and dexterity. “The Land of the Living” is a gorgeous bluegrass/country gospel performance, and “What Do You Say” has the effervescent spirit that so much of the finest bluegrass of the past decade has possessed. “Best Buy” explores swing while the title cut reveals Hull’s modern pop side.
The album and artist benefit from the support received by the bluegrass heavy-hitters mentioned, as well as the like of Shawn Lane, Ronnie Bowman, and Randy Kohrs. Hull’s Highway 111 band is also represented, performing both as a unit and with additional musicians. It seems appropriate that they close the album together—with absolutely no noticeable drop-off in performance—on Kevin McClung’s “Wouldn’t Matter to Me.”
Daybreak is an admirable collection of bluegrass and acoustic music, standing with the very best the genre has to offer. As does the sunrise, Daybreak also provides promise for what may follow.