Nickel for her thoughts
A talk with Sara Watkins from ‘newgrass’ sensation Nickel Creek
Nickel Creek’s music has been referred to as “postmodern bluegrass,” “youthgrass,” “newgrass” and the definitive “acoustic string ensemble.” But like all good musicians, the members of the Southern Californian acoustic trio shy away from name tags.
“If you made a pie chart,” said fiddler/ vocalist Sara Watkins from a “lovely cabin” in Boulder, Colo., while on tour recently, “bluegrass is the largest slice. That’s where we come from, our foundation. But there are a lot of other things as well. Meeting new people and seeing new things and being in new environments, it’s impossible for all that not to make it into our band.”
The Nickel Creek recipe includes some fine gourmet ingredients. Along with influences that, in addition to bluegrass, include country, rock, folk, jazz and classical, Nickel Creek displays skillful instrumental dexterity, smooth-as-silk acoustic ballads and excellent songwriting. If it were a contest (and they’ve all won their share), they could blow the roof off any room, as they do in the instrumental “Ode to a Butterfly.” But they’ve smartly chosen to produce a well-rounded, multifaceted repertoire.
Picking and grinning their way into Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium, this will be the young folksters’ third visit to Chico in the last two years. And if its previous visits occurred while Nickel Creek was experiencing a groundswell of new-found popularity, this latest one comes during a national tidal wave.
Nickel Creek is sister and brother Sara and Sean Watkins, 20 and 25, respectively, and Chris Thile, 21. All three write their own songs (Chris and Sean have their own solo records), and Sara and Chris provide the lead vocals.
Playing together as kids and growing up near Oceanside, the members of Nickel Creek honed their skills while immersed in the Southern California bluegrass community. And while they are respectful toward the legendary Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, “The people we looked up to were of the third generation,” Sara said, “people like Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Tim O’Brien and Stewart Duncan. We found out about the majority of them as kids hanging out at festivals. Then when we were hired, we’d talk to them backstage.”
And when did Nickel Creek know that the band was more than a hobby and was turning into a full-time career? “I think it happens still,” Sara said, “but I think it was when we [first] stayed in a hotel where the toilet paper was folded under.”
Not wanting to spoil the fun, Sara wouldn’t be specific about what tunes Nickel Creek might play at Laxson, aside from saying, “We’ll play songs off both albums, our solo albums, songs that have yet to be recorded, some that will never be recorded, and we like to do a few covers.” They’ve been known to perform songs by Elliott Smith, Pavement and Bob Dylan.
Sara’s voice is smooth and melodic with a lullaby-like quality reminiscent of Alison Krauss. In fact, Krauss produced both Nickel Creek CDs. “We had met her over the years,” Sara said. “She saw us play at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and was really excited. We didn’t know she was there. When we considered producers, we asked her and she agreed.”
Beginning in Nashville, Nickel Creek’s tour-bus is rolling through a fall tour that includes six California stops and a few dates with Gillian Welch, followed by a month in Europe. This Side, the trio’s second major release, debuted in August at No. 2 on the Billboard Country Album Chart and No. 18 on the Top 200 Album chart. Since then, the group has been lauded by such big boys as the New York Times, USA Today and Time.
When asked what CD would one might likely hear on the Nickel Creek tour bus? “Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," Sara said. "It’s brilliant. It’s been pretty much our soundtrack for a month."