In 1993 an album titled ‘Little Cowpoke’ was released by a little known band called Nickel Creek, and at the ages of 11, 12 and 15 it is doubtful that the young trio could have guessed what the future was hold for them. Fast forward 13 years to 2006 and you are presented with a band that has matured to become known far beyond their native America, have garnered immense respect from their musical peers, and have six Grammy nominations along with one Grammy Award to their name. Success like Nickel Creek’s does not come overnight though, and their hard work and dedication can be heard continuously, both within studio recordings and live shows.
Sara Watkins (fiddle/vocals), her brother, Sean Watkins (guitar/vocals) and Chris Thile (mandolin/vocals), have been performing together for nearly two decades, an impressive achievement considering all three members of the band are only in their mid to late twenties. The bonds and friendships that they have developed began when they first met in California at a weekly bluegrass session at a local pizza restaurant, and those deep rooted connections remain evident to this day. This close-knit feel within the band is what allows them to develop and progress into new areas of music, as the group’s members are similar enough to want to head in the same direction, but individual enough to prevent the band becoming stagnant. Their first release for Sugar Hill Records firmly shows their bluegrass roots, with its high-speed instrumentals, impressive solos and gospel references. So when they released ‘This Side’ two years later, some people were puzzled by its far more folksy sound as they had expected something similar to their first album. ‘This Side’ saw the group begin to experiment and show its true colours, adding far more texture to their sound, and including the intricate harmonies that they have come to be known for.
As the trio have progressed, so too have their solo ventures. Being so prolific in the studio and on stage, one could be left wondering how they could possibly create any more than they do already, but Sean and Chris regularly release their own albums (both have new albums being released this Spring), and Sara is set to do the same. Chris explained to me, “bluegrass and the related genres sort of work like jazz bands do. Like Miles Davis would have a little ensemble and that band would stay together for a while and all those guys would have solo records, and often use the same musicians. So our solo records are just a way to take care of excess energy and ideas that we have that don’t fit with the band. Like this idea for my new record is very ‘me’ orientated, so it doesn’t plug into the Nickel Creek thing, and it would be me directing everything and that wouldn’t be right at all.”
The main focus of recent months however has been the band’s latest album, ‘Why Should the Fire Die?’ Released last September, it is their strongest offering to-date, and spawned an American tour of over 50 dates. When they went into the studio to record the album, they had specific plans and aims, one of which was to develop a slightly more aggressive sound, and that process began with a change of producer. Their previous two albums had been produced by Alison Krauss, but this time round, Eric Valentine (Queens of the Stone Age) and Tony Berg were at the helm, and had a joint aim of giving the band a much fuller sound. It is safe to say that they achieved their goal, this album has a bold and unique sound, and covers a variety of their influences. They have been twice nominated and won in 2003, in the Grammy category for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and this title is most fitting for their music, and likely comes due to them pulling in so many influences. Their sound is based around traditional folk instruments, and they draw on Celtic, Scottish, English and American folk music, whilst giving it a contemporary twist with dashes of rock, pop, country, classical and jazz, being careful to blend each genre so that you do not see the joins, and creating a synergy between all of the best aspects of the music that they love.
Having just completed their biggest tour of the UK, to sold out venues, Nickel Creek are flying high. Their live shows are when you get a true sense of this group’s talents, they never falter and are always willing to pay tribute to fellow musicians that they admire. As well as a superb mix of both old and new material, this tour included covers of Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, The Band and Bach, all of which were perfectly arranged by them for their instruments and vocal styles. However, if you missed their tour this time around, all is not lost, you can still enjoy Nickel Creek in the comfort of your own home. Of course, ideally one would purchase all of their albums, but if that is not possible, ‘Why Should the Fire Die?’ will provide a good introduction to the band, or alternatively, an extension to an already existing Nickel Creek collection, as it encapsulates all aspects of their sound. Ranging from the traditional bluegrass/Celtic feel of the instrumentals, ‘Stumptown’ and the Grammy nominated ‘Scotch and Chocolate’, and the driving rock influenced rhythm of ‘Helena’, to the 1950s sound of the Sara Watkins penned, ‘Anthony’, and the beautiful ballad, ‘Jealous of the Moon’, to album closer and title track, ‘Why Should the Fire Die?’, with its tight, gentle and calming harmonies. Whether you buy their latest release or one of their older ones, the versatility of the group means you are sure to find an aspect of Nickel Creek to suit you.