Tradition on Its Ear
Music Preview: Nickel Creek
Don't call Nickel Creek's brand of music Americana. With their blend of bluegrass, folk and modern pop, this trio of young pickers define a genre of their own. When they kick off their national tour this week with a two-night stint at the Higher Ground Ballroom, expect tight harmonies and big hooks, delivered by an attractive band of twentysomethings.
This talented trio came together in San Diego, California, in 1989, before its members were even out of junior high. Guitarist Sean Watkins and his fiddle-playing sister Sara befriended young mandolin phenomenon Chris Thile, and before long, the folk music wunderkinds were performing together in a local pizza parlor. All the while, they were honing their chops under the guidance of area bluegrass heroes John Moore and Dennis Caplinger.
Festival gigs and competitions introduced Nickel Creek to the larger bluegrass world. After one particularly stunning performance, Alison Krauss approached and gushingly asked to produce them. Not every audience was as receptive, however. "Everybody wants to be taken seriously on a professional level, and not be thought of as a kid band," says Sara Watkins, now 24. "But either people like you or don't. All in all, I don't think we ever won over the traditionalists. Most of those types who were into us were pretty much over it after the first record came out, because we strayed so far from bluegrass music."
Despite their penchant for genre-blending, Nickel Creek's self-titled debut for the Sugar Hill label found the band confidently weaving through newgrass and traditional tunes alike. What truly made the trio stand out, though, were their able harmonies. On their follow-up release, This Side, they break further away from their folk roots, with vocal-driven tunes that had more in common with Counting Crows than the Carter Family, despite their old-fashioned instrumentation.
On their latest effort, Why Should the Fire Die, Nickel Creek experiment with space and texture and bringing even more pop elements to the mix. "We're really happy with this album," Watkins says. "We believe that this one represents us far better than the other ones did. There's a lot more invested in it, lyrically and musically. A great deal of thought was put into it even before we began recording."
Since the majority of their material contains no percussion, Nickel Creek are always finding creative ways to achieve their hybrid sound. "We laid down some serious goals with this record," Watkins explains. "Firstly, we wanted to record all of the instruments ourselves. We also wanted to accurately represent what we sound like on stage, and this figures into the instrumentation. We tried to satisfy the songs' needs, rhythmically or emotionally, with the instruments we had. Not having a drummer forces you to think about things differently," she adds. "You have to be more resourceful."
Much of Nickel Creek's unique sound comes from the music they heard as youngsters - from traditional folk and 'grass to '90s radio hits. "There were definitely different listening stages for me," Watkins says. "Until I was about 14 it was pretty limited to the stuff I heard at folk festivals, like Tim O'Brien and Béla Fleck. My parents always listened to a lot of music, mostly stuff with a 'roots' origin - Celtic, folk and classic rock like The Band."
By the time Watkins hit her teens, the alt-rock explosion of the 1990s was in full swing. "At that point, I started listening to bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket," she says. "It became more about song form. [Toad songwriter] Todd Phillips told stories with his music and had really great melodies. Everything opened up real fast after that."
Watkins started playing music before she was out of first grade. Although she says her parents would have encouraged lessons on any instrument, she remembers being particularly drawn to the fiddle. "I'd been watching bluegrass shows since I was 2 years old," she recalls. "Now that I look back at it, the fiddle players always stuck out. My mom wanted me to play flute, but I asked her for a fiddle when I was around 4 years old."
Being in a family act might be convenient from a creative standpoint, but it can also create major tension. Just look at the fractious relationships between musical siblings such as The Kinks' Ray and Dave Davies, the Black Crowes' Chris and Rich Robinson or Oasis' Liam and Noel Gallagher. Watkins claims that her band avoids agitation altogether. "I love it, actually," she says of playing music with her bro. "There's a whole lot of drama that's spared, because we get along so well. But we have the same family and the same job, and that doesn't leave you much time to be by yourself. It is overload sometimes. But on the upside, I know these people so well. And Chris, even though he's not my brother, is about as close as you can get."
Nickel Creek's fan base continues to expand, and their audiences are generally quite diverse. "It's pretty wide-ranging," Watkins confirms. "Lots and lots of college kids and people from their mid-twenties to thirties come out. But there are a lot of parents, too. When we play all-ages venues, people bring little kids along. I think overall it's getting younger, at least more so than when we were on the festival circuit. It's a lot of our peers, now, which is fun."