An interview with virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile from the bluegrass group Nickel Creek
“The traditionally flavored pop-folk lyrics and sparkling acoustic licks reflect an eclectic mix of influences that include classical, jazz and rock. The trio is making down- home music relevant for a new generation.”
In the world of bluegrass and acoustic music, Nickel Creek is a true phenomenon—three amazingly young musicians who already are peerless in their genre.
Led by virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile, 20, who shares vocal duties with fiddler Sara Watkins, also 20, and her 24-year-old guitarist brother Sean Watkins, the trio is simply hotter than many of the artists they emulate—and arguably surpass. The trio won “Instrumental Group of the Year” at this year’s International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, and Thile won “Best Mandolin Player.”
Before Nickel Creek released its critically acclaimed debut album last year, Thile had already won over music critics with his prodigious solo debut in 1994. This month, Thile released his third and latest solo record, Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Sugar Hill), which will be followed by a new Nickel Creek CD next year. The California native who now lives in Nashville spoke to CN&R contributor Scott Cooper about life at the top of a relatively small hill.
Has the Nashville music machine influenced you?
I’m trying to make sure it doesn’t rub off too much. There’s kind of a Music Row attitude. It’s a little stale at times, and you want to keep excited. But it’s easy enough to do if you just hang out with the musicians and not the industry types. My favorite musicians live here. Guys like Bela Fleck, Edgar Myers, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Sam Bush. I grew up listening to them, and now I’m in a spot where I can just hang out with them when I want to and we can play. It hasn’t really affected my goals as a musician, really, because I had already been affected. I like it here.
Do you feel an age gap when hanging out with guys who are 20 years older than you?
I definitely feel like they’re my elders as far as musicianship and everything. I feel like I’m the one learning, but they don’t treat me that way. They’ve been really, really great about treating me like a peer. That’s been really, really special for me. I definitely feel like I have the world to learn from these guys. And then we go off into the non-music land and then they put the burn on. After we’re done with the music part, they can be working me over about girls or anything number of things.
What luxuries does Nickel Creek afford you that a solo career does not?
Popularity, money and just a great time. Nickel Creek is how we make a living. It’s not going to make any of us rich anytime soon, but it’s getting to be successful. People are getting it, and for whatever reasons it’s just making sense to people. That’s priceless to me. Personally, it takes pressure off of me overall because I don’t have to feel like I’m the only one that people are relying on for their entertainment or their listening enjoyment. I’m just part of it. And it allows me to know that I’m going to have a fan base for a solo album. But the next Nickel Creek album is what’s most important to me. It’s endlessly important to me. I am very excited about my solo record, but that’s a different thing.
Why did you choose to release a solo record before the follow-up to Nickel Creek’s great debut?
There was a lot of material building up that wasn’t Nickel Creek material. Certain things work, and certain things aren’t right for the band. I just wanted to do what made sense musically and still get the material out. I had really written the songs to be played with those guys who I have on it. It’s more like composing for a string quartet instead of a wind quintet.