Sierra Ferrell Turns the Fine Line Into a Honky Tonk


After another day of working into the night I was getting concerned about arriving later than intended to the Fine Line in Minneapolis. Granted my door to door time is only 25 minutes, it was an unsettling feeling. Sierra Ferrell’s Rounder Records label-mate and fellow West Virginian, John R. Miller, opened up to a fairly hushed and attentive crowd.

Watching Miller perform his songs I got pulled into the atmosphere he was creating. His songs had a very calming and reflective effect on me. After a long overworked week it was a sweet reprieve to be able put that to a close and slow down for a moment. Syncing up my foot taps with the rhythmic patterns of his finger-picking technique and following the chord progressions as they formed across the fret-board I felt a familiarity with the music. They remind me of a band that more likely our local Twin Cities readers may become accustomed to over the years. It’s been a while since The Ashtray Hearts had performed or released new material and I could feel that there was a similar vibe happening here. Albeit a subtle one, it is still a void that could be filled with these new songs Miller was churning out. These are the types of tracks that make me want to crank it up on the car stereo and head out on a road trip. Cruise far out of the city and into the woods and set up camp and a fire with some beer and friends and hang out under the night sky. 

One song in particular that I became enthralled with was Faustina. The way that one transpired really caught my attention. I became fixated on watching how the chords unfolded and eagerly awaited for that specific moment between two chords to come back around again and again. With the lyrics of  “wanting to feel every mile” brought more into that vibe traveling mood. Perhaps it’s been taken out of context but that song will join a handful of others that have hit me more on the spot and have become a memorable moment that I’ll recall whenever I hear it again in the future. Further confirmation for these thoughts was when I picked up that album from the merch table towards the end of the night and the album cover depicts a van parked at a cabin in the woods under twilight skies with a cold beer sign. Again, probably taken out if context based on the stories Miller shared over the course of his 45 minute set but therein lies the beauty of art, it can be interpreted differently and still be thoroughly enjoyed with reverence despite taking on a different meaning than it’s creators. 

That album cover more likely was inspired by the tale of the restaurant he once worked at. Washing dishes late nights in a kitchen at a place that also held open mic nights and there he was working for someone that would fail a personality quiz. While on shift one evening he noticed something scurry across the floor. When he was able to go over and get a better look it was a possum that was lurking around in the kitchen. He tracked it down as it ran out to the back office and looked up at a hole in the ceiling where five possum faces were looking back down at him. His employer stated it has been an issue for a little while and was trying to keep it under wraps. Miller reallocated the critter outside with a large wash bin and felt bad after all the others left as he liked them.

Miller then played a song that was written as an homage to the small town open mic night. The crowd let out a collective chuckle when the lyrics “possum catcher” were sung. Later that evening when I unwrapped the cellophane from that CD and took a closer look at it and then my eyes caught a glimpse of a possum clinging to a tree on the cover I cracked a smile once again because of that little creature. This was Miller’s first time playing in Minneapolis and hopefully he’ll be back soon. The Turf Club in Saint Paul would be the perfect place to catch him next time out and then I won’t have to stress so much about being late as I won’t have to leave my city. 

Months ago when booking shows in the music industry started to become more prevalent again that meant the musicians I follow started to make their tour announcements and the local venues started to make their individual concerts they had upcoming. As each one was rolled out I took great interest in closely following along. The long concert drought had me becoming very eager for their return. With each successive announcement, that notification tone on my phone started becoming a familiar sound once again. I was looking into every artist that I was unfamiliar with when they were announced, searching for the next one to cover since I was so starved for photographing live music. When the show for Ferrell was publicized I hit up the usual resources for discovery with Bandcamp and YouTube to delve further into their material. Like so many others that discovered Ferrell on YouTube via the GemsOnVHS, I watched them and became mesmerized with the performances. The release of her new album, Long Time Coming, was one that I eagerly awaited for.  Leading up to the release date she dropped four different singles now and then. Those recordings on those songs were phenomenal and had such lush instrumentation, the musicianship was impeccable. Once the track list was released, I dug into the older iterations of those songs to get a sense of how the album’s flow would go. There was so much anticipation building up for me to hear those songs fleshed out with more instruments like these other four amazing tracks.

By the time Sierra Ferrell walked up the steps onto the stage with her highly talented group of musicians backing her the Fine Line was getting packed. Joshua Rilko brought vocal harmonies and majestic mandolin skills. Josie Toney dazzled with her amazing fiddle techniques and filled out the vocal harmony further. Upright bass duties were in the capable hands of Austin Janey. This was a fierce foursome that propelled the crowd to hoot and holler and to dance the night away as they swayed along by themselves or with a partner. It’s as if the Fine Line was plucked out of honky tonk row in Nashville and dropped onto First Avenue in Minneapolis. Ferrell questioned the crowd on how long they had to travel for this show and asked who drove the farthest. Shouts of two hours, three hours then finally topped out at five hours until someone declared California as the furthest.

Sierra and company were such a jovial group, they made for a fun evening of charming banter and lively crowd engagement. At one point there was an audience member seeking an engagement of their own. Someone yelled out, “Sierra, will you marry me?” to which she smiled and vibrantly exclaimed, “where is the ring!” Rilko then quipped that “everyone is frantically searching their pockets for a ring.” Sierra then channeled her inner Lord Of The Rings voice and said “one ring to rule them all” after which she called herself such a nerd.  

Besides those short conversations the band had with the audience, the longer ones they had among themselves with their instruments were stellar. Throughout the night their slight variations and added embellishments they added to the live performance made for an exciting twist.

This show was originally slated to take place just up the road a few blocks at First Avenue’s 7th Street Entry. From what I gathered in my exploration of Sierra’s music is that the Entry should sell out and would. After it got moved to the larger venue that is the Fine Line I was glad more folks could see this rising star up close. It’s only a matter of time before she heads back to First Avenue to take the mainroom by storm. We’ll all be there again along with so many more to enjoy her musical talents.

During my drive home I reflected on the 90 minute set of wonderful music that they offered up. Memories of taking long road trips with friends came wisping through my head. An eerily desolate I-94 full of traffic cones as I headed back home to Saint Paul conjured up those times when driving out to Milwaukee, Chicago or Cleveland to catch some of our favorite bands performing live. Far too often I’m left thinking that you must venture far away on a long and arduous journey to be rewarded with a chance to witness and capture the spectacular. Fortunately for me, that was just a quick jaunt across the Mississippi River from Saint Paul to Minneapolis.

Sierra Ferrell’s Setlist

Give It Time – Bells Of Every Chapel – Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down (cover) – In Dreams – West Virginia Waltz –  Why’d You Do It – Little Bird – Made Like That – Silver Dollar – Why Haven’t You Loved Me Yet – Lighthouse Song – Far Away Across The Sea – At The End Of The Rainbow – The Sea – I’d Do It Again – T For Texas (cover)  – Jeremiah – “Man” – Snakes Crawl At Night (Charley Pride cover)