Nickel Creek picks it up early |

Nickel Creek picks it up early

Stewart Oksenhorn

Look what John Moore’s mother done wrought.When Sean Watkins was 6, he started taking piano lessons from John Moore’s mother. One day Mrs. Moore suggested that Sean should go see her mandolinist son John perform at his weekly gig at That Pizza Place in San Diego. Watkins went to see Moore play, and not only fell in love with the acoustic music, but also met Chris Thile, a mandolin student of Moore’s who occasionally sat in at the pizza joint. Soon enough, Watkins was studying with Moore, and also bringing his little sister, Sara, to see Moore play. Inspired, Sara Watkins began studying fiddle with one of Moore’s bandmates, Dennis Caplinger. Before long, the three young pickers were regularly jamming with Moore’s band, Bluegrass Etc.”It was just great. There was a lot of improvisation and soloing,” said Sean Watkins. “It was fun music. It just brought us in.”From there, it wasn’t a long step for the Watkins siblings and Thile to form Nickel Creek. The trio was assembled in 1989 – when Sean was 12, Chris was 8, and Sara, 7. The three pestered their parents to take them to local concerts, spring for lessons, and otherwise support their music passions. The efforts paid off: Sara took the Arizona State Fiddle Championship at the age of 15. At 16, Sean was a finalist, on both guitar and mandolin, in the National Flatpicking Guitar Championship. Thile was probably the most advanced of the three, releasing his debut CD on Sugar Hill Records in 1994, and following with “Stealing Second,” produced by mandolin master Sam Bush, in 1997.As Nickel Creek, the three built a reputation with their gigs, first in the San Diego area, and then throughout the Southwest. When Thile moved to Kentucky in 1995, the Watkins siblings started to travel there, leading to the band’s first extensive touring. Last year, Nickel Creek had its profile raised immensely with the release of its self-titled debut, produced by bluegrass star Alison Krauss on Sugar Hill. The album of mostly original tunes showed a stunning proficiency for musicians of any age; it earned two Grammy Award nominations, for best bluegrass album, and for best country instrumental performance, for Thile’s “Ode to a Butterfly.”As much as “Nickel Creek” shines technically, it is equally pleasing in concept. The trio has moved well beyond the traditional bluegrass where it started, and now melds folk, vocal pop, Celtic and country themes into its sound. While their age averaged out to just about 20, Nickel Creek was taking the next step into the future of acoustic music.”We wanted to do something a little more mainstream, and accessible to people who weren’t into bluegrass,” said Sean Watkins, at 24 the senior member of Nickel Creek. “As young kids, it was more bluegrass-oriented. The last few years, we wanted to make it more progressive, and mix in what else we were listening to – folk and pop and classical.”Watkins cites such pop and rock acts as Counting Crows, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Elliott Smith as influences on the band’s songwriting. As far as instrumentation goes, however, Nickel Creek remains solidly in the traditions of bluegrass. The album has only the slightest bit of upright electric bass, and that is played by Thile’s father, Scott. (Scott has toured with Nickel Creek in the past, but has given way to Derek Jones, now the band’s steady bassist.)”We’ve just played acoustic music from the beginning,” said Watkins, who makes his first appearance in Aspen when Nickel Creek kicks off the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music tomorrow, Saturday, March 24, with local band Friends of Your Mother opening. “I’ve never owned an electric guitar. That’s just who we are.”Over the last year or so, Nickel Creek has made its way into the upper realms of the acoustic-music world. They performed at last year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival and at MerleFest in North Carolina. They had a two-week stretch opening for Lyle Lovett & His Large Band. One of the biggest thrills of their newfound status has been rubbing elbows with the world’s top acoustic players. They were, according to Thile, “blown away” when Krauss agreed to produce their album. Sean’s first solo album, “Let It Fall,” released last week, features contributions from first-call players such as fiddler Stuart Duncan and dobroist Jerry Douglas.”It’s really awesome to meet and play with people you’ve listened to your whole life, and patterned yourself after,” said Watkins. “We grew up listening to Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan. There are some great people, and it’s a close-knit community. It’s great to be in that company.”On the other end of the spectrum is the opportunity to spread acoustic music to a younger audience. In doing so, Nickel Creek is battling the powers of MTV and commercial radio, who might not know an acoustic instrument if they were hit over the head with one. But Nickel Creek is satisfied that it is making an impact on younger ears.”Recently, there’s been a pretty big growth in the young age group, and there’s a wide age range – there’s lots of college people, a lot of the older crowd,” said Watkins. “When we were young and growing up, when we saw somebody else young and being successful at it, we’d be inspired. And hopefully we have that effect on other young people. And I think we do.”It’s great to see young people getting into music that’s not mainstream.” Not that Watkins is about to make a wholesale dismissal of modern popular music. “There’s good pop and there’s bad pop. You just have to find what’s cool.”When Watkins sees young crowds digging Nickel Creek’s music, that’s very cool. “We’re starting to play more acoustic-rock clubs and rooms,” he said. “Our success in these rooms is a cool thing to see, that we can be accepted by a crowd that’s not bluegrass. It’s great to play a bluegrass festival and be accepted there. But it’s really encouraging to see both kinds of groups like us.”Return to The Aspen Times or

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