Sierra Ferrell’s Americana Rollercoaster

Sierra Ferrell – Trail of Flowers

“I’ve been American dreaming, but I never seem to get no rest,” Sierra Ferrell sings on the opener from her fourth album, Trail of Flowers, perhaps diagnosing the ills of an entire generation. “American Dreaming” is a road song on which the West Virginia-born/everywhere-based singer and instrumentalist tallies up the high cost of pursuing a career. For her that means cramped vans, long drives, low pay, broken relationships, and a general emotional inertia. While those music-industry specifics might not apply to every listener, it doesn’t take much extrapolation to sympathize with Ferrell’s woes. In other words, “American Dreaming” sounds like a song for right now, and the rest of this adventurous album shows why she’s making those sacrifices. 

In addition to being a dreamer in late-capitalism America, Ferrell also belongs to a generation of players steeped in old-time and bluegrass—think Sarah Jarosz, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings—but who also love Radiohead, top-40 radio, jam bands, and indie rock. She loves to tinker with new sounds and plenty of established ones, which makes for a rollercoaster of an album. There’s a two-steppin’ barroom lament “Dollar Bill Bar,” whose breezy momentum hides a scarred heart. There’s a cowboy ballad called “Money Train,” which rides a steam-powered drum beat to a tragic ending. And there’s a cover of the bluegrass standard “Chitlin’ Cookin’ time in Cheatham County.” And that’s just the first side. 

For Ferrell, Americana is vast enough to hold all of these disparate ideas and many more yet to be discovered. Every song on Trail of Flowers has its own distinct musical palette or its own stylistic juxtapositions—in short, its own reason to exist. Not every experiment is quite so sure-footed—in particular the flights of wordless singing on the overdramatic “Fox Hunt,” which recycles a trick that defined so much 2010s Americana and now sounds a little wrung—but the ones that do have a derring-do quality to them. “I Could Drive You Crazy” opens with a high-lonesome fiddle rag that rings out like a down-from-the-mountain fanfare, but then Ferrell and her band transform it into a spirited sing-along about a woman with complete confidence in winning over the object of her passions: “Well, I can’t hunt and I can’t fish, but I can drive you crazy; yes, I can,” Ferrell sings with a wink and a nudge.

Trail of Flowers is best when it stares down disappointment and disillusionment, regardless of whether Ferrell finds a reason to carry on. “Wish You Well” nurses a broken heart but makes no space for spite or malice, which makes its quietness all the more powerful. Even “Lighthouse” makes no motion to answer its own desperate questions: “Could you be the lighthouse for my soul?” she asks, harmonizing bittersweetly with her band. “Could you be the guiding light, tell me everything’s alright?” Instead, Ferrell lets the uncertainty loom, like a dark cloud obscuring a rocky shoreline.

And maybe she’s not posing those questions to a lover but to a song, one of her own or somebody else’s. Perhaps hearing a good tune on the radio or strumming out a new melody on a good guitar is enough to justify her American dreaming. – GRADE: B+

You can check out Trail of Flowers on Bandcamp and elsewhere.


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