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Watkins Family make time

By Bill Caruthers, July 2015

From their first, self-titled, major label release, the Allison Krauss-produced, "Nickel Creek," two-thirds of that trio - musical siblings Sara and Sean Watkins - have been in the musical spotlight continually since 1999.

As for working with her brother off and on for most of their lives, Sara says, "We have been lucky, being brother and sister and growing up together, we just kind of figured it out. We began playing together when I was 8 and Sean was 12. We weren't very good, but it was fun. In any successful, close working relationship you learn how to function best and smooth things out. That being said, it is really great to have a partner who lives close by and who understands my life. It's really neat."

After a hiatus, the pair reunited with their Nickel Creek partner Chris Thile last year for a well-received album and tour. This year, the siblings' new project, the Watkins Family Hour, merges some of the best rock and country sidemen and vocalists of the past 40 years or so.

Watkins Family Hour - Steal Your Heart Away (official video)

Along with Sara and Sean, on fiddle and acoustic guitar respectively, are vocalist Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame on keyboards, Don Heffington on drums, Greg Leisz on Dobro and pedal steel and drummer Sebastian Steinberg. With a truckload of Grammy's among them, these musical masters have graced stages and recordings all over the world in their own right and in support of some of the most renowned acts in musical history, including Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton, Ray LaMontagne, The Dixie Chicks, kd lang, Emmylou Harris and Dave Alvin.

"Not only are these our friends, but it really is almost like a musical master class playing together with these guys in the Family Hour," Watkins says.

Originating from a residency allowing the Watkins siblings to "woodshed" new material and generally "do their own thing" with musical friends and family years ago at The Largo in Los Angeles, the Watkins Family Hour has become much more.

The Family Hour has evolved into a vehicle in which the Watkins and their friends coalesce around songs that they loved from their pasts, trading ideas and influences and playing music that "felt good."

Their resulting album, "Watkins Family Hour" brings songs from some of the best writers of popular music together with these master musicians. Along with several lead vocals by Sara and Sean, all of the other "Watkins Hour" principals take a lead vocal on the classic tunes.

With writers including Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Harlan Howard, Lindsey Buckingham, Robert Earl Keen and Roger Miller, the result is a charming mix of inventiveness and familiarity that has now evolved into a national tour in support of the effort with virtually all members in tow.

The first single release has Sean taking lead vocals on "Not in Nottingham," a Miller-penned tune from the animated Disney musical "Robin Hood." "We saw that movie when we were kids. Sean watched it again a while back and said 'That is still a great song.' We have loved and played these songs for most of our lives," explains Sara. "These are great writers. We have been influenced by originals and other covers as well. Gordon Lightfoot's song, ‘Early Morning Rain,' I first heard and loved as a version by Tony Rice. These songs have become staples for us over the years at Largo. I love singing with Fiona on 'Where I Ought To Be,' and right now my favorite is probably 'Brokedown Palace.' We do originals too, but for this record, the best representation of The Family Hour would be to play the songs of other people that we have loved and shared together for so long."

Recorded by multiple Grammy-winning producer Sheldon Gomberg, over a three-day period, the record has the feel of a laidback, coffee house show where the artists are completely confident in their abilities and in each other. "This recording came after years of first playing Largo about once a month trying out new material in front of a crowd, then to playing songs that we loved with our friends, to this recording and a national tour. It really has been a series of happy accidents and wonderful flexibility. Over the years, we have developed a repertoire where we became a true group together, an ensemble."

"Sheldon asked us to come by as a group to visit and maybe put some stuff down. Since we had never recorded as The Family Hour, we thought this would be a great opportunity to document what we were doing right now with the band. It really wasn't something that we had considered putting out and touring behind, but it turned out to be something that we were all pretty proud of, so we decided to go ahead and put it out properly, through Thirty Tigers and do some touring. It has become a really 'proper' release and we are really excited and ready to take this show on the road.

"The Family Hour has always been about finding common material and celebrating other people's music. The road show will continue that as well as we incorporate friends into the mix as we move around the country adding some of their music into the show and having that collaborative moment on stage. I don't want to make any big announcements, but there will be surprise guests from time to time as we visit our friends' cities. There will be some fun people around with us."

After years in a relatively intimate setting, one might wonder how Sara and Sean find playing in a larger, more elaborate musical ensemble might feel to a musician. "Now with the Watkins Family Hour band, it is fun for us to mix it up and grow as players. The influences and lineage that has been brought into this group is pretty broad. There are great road stories to be had for sure of their lives as musicians, but these guys are still great, and there is still music to be played. It is an honor to play with these musicians, and our relationships have deepened over the years. I think that we all appreciate what the Family Hour at Largo has done for us as musicians."

"Sometimes when you get out in the weeds with a particular project, you can forget how important and fun it is to just get out there and play some songs, and this opportunity has been great to let us do that and invite different people down to join us. This project has allowed all of us to have the experience of traveling together and being together and knowing each other as musicians and friends. That is what it really is about, being a working musician and having a life in music. Seeing what everyone brings to the table, whether that is a great song that they remember or just sitting and listening to a record together. It is a really fun group to be with and share life with. The Family Hour has because truly an extended family."