Nickel Creek, a powerhouse trio who started out in bluegrass and has grown to be the Next Big Thing, is anything but an overnight success. The twentysomethings include prodigy Chris Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on fiddle and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins. They banded together in 1990 when Sara Watkins, the youngest, was 8 years old and Thile was 9. The old man of the group, Sean Watkins, was all of 13. They started playing together after their respective parents took them to hear the band, Bluegrass Etc., at a weekly pizza parlor gig in their hometown of San Diego. Soon they were playing at bluegrass festivals, chauffeured by father Scott Thile, who sat in on bass.
"We've just always had the idea to take it to the very maximum it could go. 'This is it, let's do it,'" according to Sean Watkins. "We still have that attitude."
You want to talk ambitious young people? Thile released his debut solo album at the tender age of 12 after catching the attention of mando-master Sam Bush. Thile's since been a finalist three times for the International Bluegrass Music Association's mandolinist of the year. He's now 21.
Petite 20-year-old Sara Watkins won the Arizona State Fiddling Championship in 1997 when she was 15. Sean took first place in the National Flatpicking Championship in 1993 as a 16-year-old. What's even more amazing is that he had only been playing that instrument for three years.
"My first instrument was piano," Watkins explained. "I took lessons for seven years. I started playing mandolin at 9 and switched to guitar when I was 13. I just seemed to have more talent with guitar. My hands are bigger and just aren't made for mandolin playing."
If their musicianship was stunning, they also raised some eyebrows at festivals by increasingly straying outside the rigid boundaries of traditional bluegrass in favor of the more progressive newgrass sound of Bush, Bela Fleck and Mark O'Connor.
"Traditional bluegrass by definition stays the same," Watkins noted. "We started playing a very progressive form of bluegrass that was mixed with jazz and rock. From there, we're trying to take it to newer levels. We consider ourselves musicians, not just bluegrass musicians, though we started off as a bluegrass band. We want to be well-rounded. We're not trying to make ourselves unclassifiable. We're just looking for a sound that we all have in our heads--the pop songwriting that we like, the energy of Celtic, the soloing of jazz and the arrangements of classical."
Along the way, they replaced Scott Thile with bassist Derek Jones. They inevitably crossed paths with fiddler Alison Krauss, herself a child prodigy who signed her first recording contract at 14, who went on to become the youngest member ever of the Grand Ole Opry and is now iconic enough to be featured talking about family values for McDonald's. Krauss has also become a consummate producer. She produced Nickel Creek's self-titled major label debut, released in 2000. (Their actual debut was a 1997 self-produced work entitled Here to There.)
The album Nickel Creek has since garnered two Grammy nominations, three hit videos and two Country Music Association nominations, including vocal group of the year. The album included the intricate and evocative instrumental "Ode to a Butterfly," a harmony-soaked arrangement of the traditional tune, "The Fox" and the moody "Lighthouse," a strange tale of romance, death and suicide narrated by the building itself, which has become one of their most popular numbers.
They recently released their follow-up album, This Side, also produced by Krauss. In addition to the Thile and Sean Watkin's authored songs, they cover Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger," Planxty's "Time Will Cure Me" and Carrie Newcomer's "I Should've Known Better."
As far as crafting the Nickel Creek sound, Watkins said, "Usually the person who writes the song has an idea of how it should be. But then when you bring it to the band, everyone has their own ideas and it usually ends up being better than what you had originally planned. Chris and I feel a lot more confident as songwriters. It's just a natural progression for us. If you've heard our first CD, it's been kind of a straight line. It's really fun playing these new songs with the old ones. It works well."
The extraordinary success of Nickel Creek hasn't had much effect on its members, mostly because they've been at this for so long.
"We haven't really changed that much," Watkins said. "We're trying to play better and we feel a little more comfortable on stage. We haven't really done anything different than we would have done with the natural progression of this music. We all play with other people on the side. It keeps it fresh and interesting."