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Sara Watkins

Young in All the Wrong Ways – 2016 (New West)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins' voice is powerful. "Young In All The Wrong Ways" showcases her instrument admirably. Watkins burst upon the music scene in 1989, as part of Nickel Creek, teaming with her brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile. Nickel Creek had a solid run of recording and live music performances for a couple of decades before the members spread out into other collaborations (Nickel Creek has played a few festival dates most years, alongside their other projects). Watkins also teamed up with vocal peers Aoife O'Donovan and Sarah Jarosz for the "I'm With Her" tour dates in 2015. Judging both by the company she keeps and this new release, Watkins is a substantial voice (literally and metaphorically) in the music business.

Watkins has made a real statement here. This is not, strictly speaking, an Americana record. Nor is it bluegrass in any way, despite Watkins' great talent as a fiddler. "Young In All The Wrong Ways" is a little bit country and a little bit pop. It's direct and spot on singing.

Watkins roots are represented by a 4/4 country ballad ("The Truth Will Set Us Free") in which she grasps and owns a range that would make Dolly Parton proud, accompanied by a rolling piano line and her own fiddle. The song owes not a little to Merle Haggard's "Big City" Watkins seems to have consciously de-emphasized her instrumental work on the record, but it strikes the right note here.

"Invisible" and "Tenderhearted," the final cuts, are the closest to mountain songs, but their echoes and rolling patterns exemplify the anthemic form which is the style of the day. "Say So" similarly shows that Watkins can belt out a tune but keep the sentiment intact. Watkins' rich vocals match well with current music sensibilities: big sound, full production values, crisp electric guitar licks. This formula is displayed on the title cut, which starts modestly, but rips guitar riffs building and ebbing. "Like New Year's Day" is a standout cut with elements of pop and country in equal measures.

Watkins' songwriting seldom disappoints on "Young In All The Wrong Ways". "The Love That Got Away" is sweet and fulsome, with smooth phrasing. "One Last Time" entices with an introductory acoustic guitar line, before emerging into a lively full-blown production, complete with a tasty interlude. "Move Me" is straight-outta-Adele, with a layer of country dirt.

And why not? There's a place for strong songwriting and crazy-good vocals drawing from a genuine Americana-based sensibility. Sara Watkins has been known to audiences for years, but now she's presenting a new dimension of vocal artistry and songwriting chops.