Never heard of San Diego’s Nickel Creek? It’s time to fix that
The San Diego band re-releases its three best-known albums on vinyl
In 1999, one year before Nickel Creek’s national debut album came out and began to earn worldwide acclaim, each member of the groundbreaking San Diego Americana-music trio was eager to scale new heights ... in the halls of academia.
Not knowing that stardom would soon come their way — including a 2003 Grammy Award, million-selling albums and performances at such top festivals as Coachella and Lollapalooza — mandolinist-singer Chris Thile, violinist-singer Sara Watkins and guitarist-singer Sean Watkins were all pursuing higher learning.
Sara, then 18, was a business major at Palomar College. Her brother, Sean, then barely 22, was studying music at MiraCosta College. Chris, then 18, was a music major at Murray State University in Tennessee. Their soon-to-soar careers ensured that their respective student tenures were brief.
During a recent telephone to discuss this Friday’s vinyl-only, remastered reissues on Craft Recordings of the three albums Nickel Creek made between 2000 and 2005, the three musicians recalled their brief time furthering their educations — and what compelled them to drop out.
“I was ‘majoring’ at a junior college,” Sara said from her Los Angeles home, laughing at the memory. “I think I said I was a ‘business major’ because I was trying to sound like I was doing something! For a long time, we were doing extended weekend concert tours, so I would only take Tuesday or Thursday classes. I never graduated.”
“We were in the mindset of not knowing if music was something we could do as a living,” added Sean, speaking from his home in Eagle Rock. “Many of our musical mentors and heroes had day jobs.”
“I loved every minute of being in college!” said Chris, a 2012 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient, speaking from near his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “All three of us were homeschooled, at one time or another, and me for a long time. So, going to university with other human beings — who I was not related to — was thrilling.”
During their truncated college enrollments, Nickel Creek performed a concert at a rural Pennsylvania venue whose name they do not now recall. All three members cite that gig as instrumental in their mutual decision to leave school behind.
“It was the first time where 100 or 200 people came, just to see us, and there weren’t any other bands on the bill,” Chris said.
“It felt like it happened suddenly,” added Sean. “But, in other ways, it was very gradual, like: ‘Oh yeah, this step and that step’.”
Nickel Creek’s self-titled national debut album was released by Sugar Hill Records on March 21, 2000. It went on to sell more than a million copies. That was an astounding feat for the bluegrass-rooted group, whose members combined instrumental virtuosity and inviting vocals with an already distinctive songwriting approach and a keen appreciation for alt-rock, jazz, pop and more.
“In early April of 2000, we went to a (San Diego) Padres game,” Sean said. “It was a day or two after we played on ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ for the first time and I had just got my first cell phone. I called my dad from the game and he was telling me how our album was doing on Amazon.”
“That’s right,” Thile said. “And I was thinking that if it did well, maybe we won’t have to sit in the bleachers anymore!”
Intriguingly, the dozen-song “Nickel Creek” album came out just weeks after Sean was set to begin his studies as a music composition major at San Diego State University. He never attended a single class.
“I was at SDSU’s music building the day before the semester was supposed to start, and there were all these kids running around with instruments,” Sean said.
“I remember thinking: ‘I already have the opportunity — with Nickel Creek — to do what these kids want to do.’ I made the call to focus on touring, rather than try and do both half-assed. And that show we did in Pennsylvania was a turning point that made me realize we could ditch school, at least for little while, although I had a great time at MiraCosta and learned a lot about music.”
As it transpired, Nickel Creek would have quite a lot to teach the music world at large. The group did so in a way that proved entertaining, enlightening and completely unexpected, given its initially low profile and solid foundation in American roots music. Then again, the trio’s broad artistic scope also enabled Nickel Creek to mix in its genre-blurring original songs with very distinctive versions of favorites by everyone from Bob Dylan and Radiohead to Britney Spears and indie-rock darlings Pavement.
‘A band, by accident’
Sara and Sean had met Chris and become friends with him at the weekly jam sessions at Carlsbad’s That Pizza Place, where they were soon being mentored by the members of the all-star house band, Bluegrass Etc. Their debut performance as Nickel Creek took place at That Pizza Place in in 1989. Sean was 12. Sara was 8. So was Chris, whose dad, Scott, played bass in the group for more than a decade.
“Nickel Creek was this thing that just happened and started by accident,” Chris recalled. “We were offered (the opportunity) to be a ‘kids band’ at a bluegrass festival, and then we kept doing it. It wasn’t: ‘Let’s be a band!’ Because we already were a band, by accident.”
Nickel Creek’s precocious debut album, 1993’s “Little Cowpoke,” was made for the aptly named Choo Choo Records. It featured endearingly earnest versions of such weathered songs as “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Deep In The Heart Of Texas” and “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” featuring the then 12-year-old Sara on lead vocals.
Chris’ audacious debut solo album, “Leading Off...,” was released by Sugar Hill in 1994. It featured Sean, the members of Bluegrass Etc. and violin great Byron Berline, whose song, “Nickel Creek,” had inspired the trio’s stage name.
The group’s second album, 1997’s self-produced “Here to There,” was a solid, cutesy-free outing that led to Nickel Creek getting signed by Sugar Hill, one of the nation’s most prestigious bluegrass record labels. Sara, Sean and Chris eagerly responded when Sugar Hill proposed having their debut album as a group on the label be produced by bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, who was only 16 when her national 1987 debut album came out on Rounder Records, the parent company of Sugar Hill.
“Alison was like Elvis to us!” Chris said. “In bluegrass, there was no one bigger than her, in terms of stature. When she said she wanted to produce us, that was a real wake-up call to me. It was the first hint.”
Singer/violinist Krauss was still a teenager when she earned her first Grammy Award in 1990. She now has 27 victories to her credit, making her the top female winner in Grammy history. As the laser-focused, no-nonsense producer of both 2000’s “Nickel Creek” and the trio’s even more accomplished 2002 follow-up, “This Side,” she helped the trio up its game considerably.
“It was very interesting to be in the studio with Alison,” Sara said. “First, it was like: ‘Holy cow! This is what a real studio is like!’ Before that, we had been recording in Chris’ home studio, which was in a shed at his parents’ home in Idyllwild.
“Even so, we thought we had very high standards as teenagers. And for Alison to spend an hour on microphone placement, which (guitar and mandolin) pick sounds best and changing strings — all these things that are now very common to us — were totally not things we (considered) before we worked with her.”
“Alison had a vision for us,” Chris said.
“She helped us discern the discrepancy between what we were hearing in our heads and what we were actually doing. There were all these instances where she said: ‘I know this song of yours works when you play it at a festival and people get excited. But if you play it like that on a record, it won’t stand the test of time.’ She taught us a lot about revising.”
“That is a really good point,” Sean agreed. “Alison was unapologetic about her feelings and opinions, in a way that almost felt harsh. But she stood by them and said: ‘It’s the truth and it’s better this way.’ She taught us to objectively listen, determine what we meant to do, then ask: ‘Is this really good enough?’ ”
“And not just for recording,” Sara interjected. “For songwriting, too, it’s very easy to think that what you mean to say is coming across. But there was a lot of feedback from Alison about making small changes that helped get the story across to the listener.”
Well, hello, Dolly!
In 1999, then-fellow Sugar Hill artist Dolly Parton selected Nickel Creek to accompany her on a song from her album, “The Grass is Blue.” The group also performed with Parton during the 2001 Grammy Awards telecast, along with Brad Paisley.
The San Diego-bred trio’s ability to connect with different audiences was perhaps best underscored in 2007. It was then that Nickel Creek and Willie Nelson were the only two artists booked to perform in Indio at the eighth annual Coachella rock and electronic-dance music festival, and — a week later — at the debut edition of the Stagecoach country-music festival at the same site in Indio. Both festivals are produced by Goldenvoice, which saw in Nickel Creek and Nelson unique opportunity to cross-pollinate the two events.
“There were other milestones like that, which showed us there were people who liked us and Radiohead,” Sean said. “It was exciting to ‘find our people.’ And it was exciting to play in venues — where a big rock band had played the night before — and see an audience that looked not unlike the audience that had come to see the rock band. It felt like we were breaking through.”
And, as fate had it, breaking up.
After the completion of its 2007 tour, Nickel Creek’s members began what ended up being a seven-year hiatus. During that time, Chris launched his five-man group, the Grammy-winning Punch Brothers. He also recorded five solo and duo albums, as well as “The Goat Sessions,” which teamed him with legendary classical-music cellist Yo-Yo Ma, contrabassist Edgar Meyer and former San Diego violin sensation Stuart Duncan.
Sara and Sean launched the Watkins Family Hour, which saw them collaborate with everyone from Jackson Browne and Fiona Apple to Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. They also recorded and toured as Mutual Admiration Society, a band that also included Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips and Led Zeppelin alum John Paul Jones, who produced Sara’s self-titled 2009 debut solo album.
She has since made two more solo albums, toured as a member of The Decemberists and is a co-founder of the Grammy-winning I’m With Her, which teams Sara with Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz. Sean, who has five solo albums to his credit, has also made two albums with Fiction Family, the group he co-leads with Jon Foreman of Switchfoot.
“When Nickel Creek went on our hiatus, it was time for me to make a solo record because I had something to say,” Sara said. “We’d had our noses to the grindstone for so long that, eventually, we looked up and thought: ‘It would be nice not to work all the time.’ I remember thinking: ‘Are we just going to keep doing this forever? Do we just do Nickel Creek for the rest of our lives’?”
Splitting up for seven years paid off. Their time apart enabled Sara, Sean and Chris to explore new musical vistas on their own. It also enable them to eventually re-team with a new sense of purpose and commitment.
Nickel Creek reunited to make the absorbing 2014 album, “A Dotted Line.” Its release coincided with the trio’s 25th anniversary. The trio’s 2014 tour yielded the just-released, digital-only album “Live from the Fox Theater,” which was recorded in Oakland.
“We missed Nickel Creek,” Sean said, explaining the impetus for the reunion.
“There is a thing that happens when the three of us are together,” Chris added, “that we don’t experience in any other way.”
In November 2017, Nickel Creek re-grouped again to perform at the San Diego Civic Theatre for a radio broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion,” which Chris began hosting the previous year. The show, whose name was changed to “Live from Here” in December 2017, was canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nickel Creek’s most recent concerts took place last year in New York, including a date at Carnegie Hall.
The pandemic forced the trio to shelve scheduled performances this year. But the fact that Nickel Creek is still a going concern — 31 years after being launched by a trio of pre-teens — is a source of pride and happy surprise for its members. So is the re-release of the group’s 2000, 2002 and 2005 albums, which have long been out of print on vinyl.
“Being in Nickel Creek just felt like part of growing up to us,” Sara said. “I remember people would ask: ‘Do you have a five-year plan, or a 10-year plan?’ And we were like: ‘A plan? What are you talking about? We just record and tour’.”
“Yeah,” Chris said: “Were planning on playing a festival this month!”
“Right,” Sean said. “I’m playing my guitar and you give me money!”
Sara laughed with delight.
“We are playing on ‘Saturday Night Live’!’ ” she said.
Chris laughed even harder.
“We still haven’t played,” he noted, “on ‘Saturday Night Live’.”
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