You may listen through Sierra Ferrell’s new album, Long Time Coming, and come out the other side with only the haziest idea who she is, and that’s okay. The state of not knowing is all the more reason to absorb the album’s countless influences, the varying wavelengths on which each track exists, and the way the record’s dexterity tells us all we really need to know about Ferrell as a musician: She’s the sum of her journeys around the U.S., from New Orleans to Seattle, not easily defined and impossible to pigeonhole. Also, she’s very talented. That matters, too.
There’s Nashville in Long Time Coming, naturally, that being the place she now calls home. But Ferrell grew up in West Virginia and busked all over the place before the road took her to the Music City. Ferrell’s style meanders. One moment she’s singing a waltz, whether on “West Virginia Waltz” or “Whispering Waltz.” The next, she’s belting out a classic folk-country story about an unrequited and oblivious love in “Bells of Every Chapel.” Frankly, the album opener, “The Sea,” a ditty soaked in brine and with a plea to Poseidon on the chorus, is a giant, screaming hint at how far and wide Ferrell will take her audience from beginning to end.
Long Time Coming weaves a melancholic kind of magic with that mythological invocation. It’s a bold choice to kick off an album that has nothing to do with Greek gods by begging one of them for help: “So Poseidon give me life / Let me breathe like a Pisces with blue eyes.” But it’s also normal for humans in love to seek divine intervention, and Ferrell is nothing if not human. She’s quirky, too, of course, and an utterly compelling frontwoman as a result. “The Sea,” for instance, doesn’t read as the product of Nashville’s music scene, but rather like a bit of cabaret that’s only broadly identifiable as “Southern” thanks to Ferrell’s twang and, tangentially, a deep-rooted sadness sourced from her inability to keep her lover’s eye from wandering.
That contrast between romantic misery and the ocean comes up more than a few times on Long Time Coming: It’s there on “Why’d Ya Do It,” too. “My love for you’s a deep blue ocean, baby / I just wanna swim inside,” Ferrell hums on the very first verse, determining later on that she ought to find someone “who won’t tear my world apart.” This is a fundamental subject in country, roots music, folk and Americana, the old stereotype people with no fondness and lots of contempt for all these genres like to foist on them. Singers either mope about losing their car, their dog or their spouse in country music. Long Time Coming is the product of Ferrell’s personal “stuff,” accrued over years of performing in venues and on streets; it’s fair to assume she picked up her share of heartbreaks along her way, too.
Swirling waves make a vivid, foreboding counterpoint to the considerably more inviting backdrop of balmy summer days, or the fiery geography Ferrell evokes on songs like “Far Away Across the Sea” and “Why’d You Do It” by incorporating elements of mariachi music into her songwriting: Up-tempo, staccato guitar-picking is accompanied by emphatic trumpet blares, songs to dance to with passion and fervor. Long Time Coming’s energy fluctuates from track to track, and each expresses its own version of passion, so it’s not as if this quality is missing outside those two particular songs. But the most impressive part of Ferrell’s fondness for leaping between aesthetics is how well she maintains continuity between them. These musical traditions relate to each other only distantly, but the record stays held together by Ferrell’s vision.
Long Time Coming feels refreshingly forward. Ferrell doesn’t tie herself in knots worrying about how her music coheres into a whole, and she doesn’t waste effort trying to make either the record’s pieces or her pieces fit together like a puzzle picture. Bluntly, she tells her listeners what she’s all about by embracing her own untidiness. It’s okay to not describe yourself in a sentence. Long Time Coming takes more than a few to characterize, and Ferrell takes a few more than that, which is as good a reason as any to give the album a spin.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.
Revisit Sierra Ferrell’s 2021 Paste Studio session below.