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Nickel Creek hits one out on debut

By John Lupton, March 2001

The faces that gazed intently into the camera on the cover photo on Nickel Creek's self-titled Sugar Hill debut when first released early in 2000 show a trio of young musicians, two of them teenagers, filled with hope, anticipation and more than a little bit of the attitude "we know we're good, and we know you're going to like us."

Standing in the background, leaning casually but confidently against an upright acoustic bass, is a bearded older man who conveys a sense of belonging, yet acknowledging that it's the kids who are the music.

As it turned out, a lot of people liked the 12-year-old band. The ensuing year garnered them recognition from the International Bluegrass Music Associ-ation - (IBMA) as Emerging Artist Of The Year and a pair of Grammy nominations - "Best Bluegrass Album" and album's opening track, "Ode To A Butterfly" as "Best Country Instrumental" - and many weeks on the Billboard country charts.

As the 2001 Grammy evening approached, Sugar Hill re-issued the disc with a new cover photo.

And the young threesome - mandolin wizard Chris Thile, fiery flatpick guitarist Sean Watkins and his younger sister, the hauntingly sweet fiddler Sara Watkins - are still displaying plenty of attitude, but it speaks of the sort of confidence and maturity that a year of unbridled success can bring to even grizzled veterans of the music business.

Missing from the new cover is the man with the bass, Chris' father Scott Thile, who like a good parent knows when to let go of the training wheels and say "the kids are all right."

Now just past his 20th birthday, Chris Thile ("th" as in "youth," rhymes with "really") arrived on the bluegrass scene in the early '90's.

As a side project from Nickel Creek, his first solo album, "Leading Off" appeared on Sugar Hill in 1994, followed in 1997 by "Stealing Second."

Both were entirely instrumental, and both featured backup musicians from the top ranks of bluegrass: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Pete Wernick.

That the album titles feature a common theme is no accident. Baseball and music competed for Chris' attention throughout his childhood, and he is still a self-professed nut about the game.

After getting his first mandolin at age 5, though, music became his overriding passion. In 1989, the Thiles (Chris, Scott and mom Kathy) became regulars at a San Diego-area pizza restaurant that featured live bluegrass music. Also on hand regularly were Sara Watkins, the same age as Chris, and Sean, four years older.

The standout attraction at the restaurant was the popular Southern California band Bluegrass Etc., featuring mandolin player John Moore (who later joined forces with the bluegrass power trio of Byron Berline, Dan Crary and John Hickman as part of California) and fiddler Dennis Caplinger.

Both boys soon became Moore's students, while Sara began studying with Caplinger. The instruction proved to be rigorous and demanding.

As Thile recalls, "Technique was hammered into us...that was a great foundation."

They learned fast, though, and they learned well, and before long, Nickel Creek was in business, with Scott Thile playing bass and keeping a watchful eye on their progress. By the time she was old enough to drive, Sara won the Arizona State Fiddle Championship, and Sean was a finalist on both mandolin and guitar at the National Flatpicking Guitar Championship. Chris, meanwhile, was nominated for IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year with the likes of Jesse McReynolds and Ronnie McCoury.

Yet, although their love of straight-ahead bluegrass was genuine, they were also strongly influenced by the music of their own generation, in particular bands like Toad The Wet Sprocket (whose onetime lead singer Glen Phillips has become a close friend).

As they matured individually into their teen years, Nickel Creek gradually but determinedly evolved as well from what some called a "kiddie act" to a band that had a lot more on its mind than hot bluegrass licks.

"As I grow older," Thile says, "I experience more things. And there's certain things you actually want to come out and say, not just to insinuate with an instrumental, like I'm used to doing."

When the time came to record for the first time as Nickel Creek, the sound that came out of the sessions was far beyond bluegrass, and actually, not really the kind of "newgrass" that had been pioneered over the last two decades by Bla Fleck, Bush and Jerry Douglas.

The mood is ethereal, ranging from the aptly named pick-a-thon "Ode To A Butterfly" (written by Chris), to the fantasy of Tolkien ("In The House Of Tom Bombadil") to the poetry of Robert Burns' "Sweet Afton" to the aching wistfulness of "Out Of The Woods."

What caught the attention of many observers, though, was that they proved themselves to be capable, captivating vocalists. Sara, in particular, drew numerous comparisons to Alison Krauss, not much of a surprise given the fact that Krauss produced. Watkins' distinct sense of timing and phrasing sets her subtly apart from Krauss, and the harmonies with her bandmates are at times chilling.

Call it "youthgrass," "alt.-grass" or anything else that comes to mind, but it defies easy labeling or classification.

"I'd love to be part of helping people realize that there's more out there than Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears - kids our age," says Thile. "If they're experienced listeners and they're older people, I want them to be able to look at the music and analyze it and come out with something."