One evening last October, 17-year-old bluegrass performer Sierra Hull walked into the Highland 10 Cinema in Cookeville, Tenn., to see Billy: The Early Years, a film based on the life of the Rev. Billy Graham.
"I couldn't find anybody to go with, so I just went by myself," she recalls with a shrug.
None of her fellow moviegoers that evening, she's pretty sure, recognized her up on the screen portraying young Billy's sister. And they had no way to connect one of the singing voices on the soundtrack to the young woman sitting in the back of the theater, quietly munching her popcorn.
When the movie was over, Sierra drove the 35 miles back to her hometown of Byrdstown (pop. 903) and went to bed.
It was just another day in the double life of Sierra Hull, juggling the responsibilities of a small-town high school senior while exploring her expanding horizons as one of the hottest young artists in bluegrass music.
Although Hull's 2008 debut CD, Secrets, brought a lot of mainstream attention her way, she's actually been wowing bluegrass audiences for years as a mandolin-picking, singing, songwriting prodigy. She's appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and at Carnegie Hall, toured with Alison Krauss, performed on A Prairie Home Companion and won the admiration and support of many top bluegrass artists.
Every year since 2002, the city of Byrdstown has sponsored an annual music event, the Sierra Hull Bluegrass Festival, in honor of its most famous citizen. This year's festival is scheduled for Sept. 12.
The producers of the Billy Graham movie selected Sierra to not only act in a small part, but also to sing the hymn "Just As I Am" on the soundtrack.
Sierra enjoyed making the movie, but didn't particularly like having to set aside her mandolin for several days to focus wholly on filmmaking.
"The last day we shot, I made my mom drive home so I could sit in the back and play," she says. "I missed it so much."
Mom Brenda, a nurse, and dad Stacy, a fiber-optic technician, recognized early that Sierra had extraordinary talent, but they always taught her to be humble about it. "My parents always told me that just because I can play an instrument and sing doesn't mean I'm any different than anybody else," she says.
Sierra first became interested in music as a toddler, strumming her father's big guitar when he'd leave it around the house. Later, music lessons refined her natural gifts.
By the time she was 11, she was picking up a storm and winning national mandolin competitions.
"When I first met Sierra she was a little girl, very young," says bluegrass superstar Ricky Skaggs. "But I could tell by her playing that she had the talent if she would keep going, and she certainly has. She has matured as a player, as a beautiful young woman, and a great Christian example for other young girls. I'm so proud of her."
"Sierra is a remarkably talented, beautiful human being," says Krauss. "I adore her."
In the early days, Brenda used to chauffeur Sierra to shows. But the apron strings are loosening now that Sierra can drive, and she's got her eyes on the highway as she looks ahead to graduating from Pickett County High School this spring. "We're talking about maybe getting a bus," she says, "and hitting it pretty hard."
Whatever the road ahead holds for the budding bluegrass star, rest assured that music will always be a part of it.
"Nothing makes her happier than playing," Brenda says. "I just don't think she could ever be content doing anything else."
Find out why there's so much excitement about Sierra Hull. Her acclaimed new CD, Secrets, can be ordered by calling (800) 715-6248 or by visiting www.AmericanProfile.com/store. Price for American Profile readers is $17.98 plus s&h. Please use order code HULL-A915.