No small change

Sara Watkins, one third of bluegrass-turned-acoustic-pop sensation Nickel Creek, is sick of wasting paper to-go cups at her favorite coffee shop in San Diego, where she lives.

“I’m going to borrow this mug,” she murmurs into her cell phone. “I mean, I come in here all the time, so I don’t think they’ll mind.”

She’s getting her fix following a morning surf session with her brother, Sean, another member of Nickel Creek. Watkins goes on to explain that in Europe, where the band just spent 12 days, no one uses those pesky carry-out cups — mainly because everyone downs their caffeine while standing in the cafe.

“We’re just getting started in Europe,” she states. “We’re just putting a dent in things over there.”

Finding their niche overseas means Nickel Creek plays smaller venues than they’re accustomed to; but according to Watkins, the band’s been well received.

“This last trip was super fun,” she enthuses.

The trio has made far more than a dent on this side of the Atlantic, however. Their 2000 self-titled debut (Sugar Hill Records), produced by Alison Krauss, sold more than 700,000 copies and was nominated for a Grammy.

Their 2002 follow up, This Side (Sugar Hill), also produced by Krauss, debuted at No. 18 on the pop charts, moved a quarter-million copies in its first two months, then won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album at this year’s awards ceremony.

They’ve also been guests on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and landed two hit videos on Country Music Television.

Don’t hate them because they’re beautiful

One assumes most Grammy winners have, in some way or another, paid their dues. But Nickel Creek’s members are all in their 20s, and two of them barely so: Watkins, the fiddler, is 21; her guitarist brother Sean is 26; and mandolin player/lead vocalist Chris Thile is 22. Their impressive musicianship aside, the band’s palpable youth exposes them to equal parts adoration and jealous contempt.

What some detractors might not realize is that this fresh-faced trio is already more than a decade old.

That’s right — the Watkins kids and Thile met as elementary-schoolers at a San Diego pizza joint where their parents took them to hear a weekly bluegrass show. When most kids were busying themselves with Power Rangers, these three were literally handed the instruments of their fame.

Then a bluegrass promoter decided it would be cute — and lucrative — to tour a kiddie band on the festival circuit. So, with Thile’s dad playing bass, Nickel Creek entered the scene.

“The [band’s] name is a really unexciting story,” Watkins announces. “It’s the name of a fiddle tune Byron Berline wrote. We all grew up listening to him and playing with him. We needed a name, so we picked that one because there’s all kinds of rivers and creeks in bluegrass bands.”

She spouts off a half-dozen names to prove her point, adding, “Maybe it doesn’t fit anymore. For a while we were embarrassed of the name, but now we’re coming around to it again.”

Part of that “coming around to it” has to do with Nickel Creek’s penchant for growing out of genres.

“We love bluegrass so much,” Watkins insists. “We’re far enough away from bluegrass now to not turn [pop fans] off, but we hope we’re not too far away.”

In fact, publicity reps from Sugar Hill Records, the band’s increasingly famous roots-music label (Doc Watson is one labelmate) have had to exert their spin muscles to encompass the band’s wildly changing sound. (“Though originally created as a bluegrass band, their music expands on those influences by incorporating Beatles-flavored psychedelia, left-of-center alt-rock, pop, folk and more,” goes one Sugar Hill blurb.)

Watkins herself has been known to cover her bases with determinedly vague labels such as “progressive acoustic.” And front man Thile, who has boy-band looks and a promising solo career in his corner, recently admitted, “The hardcore bluegrass purists don’t think we’re bluegrass, so we don’t like to say we’re bluegrass out of respect for those people.”

Sean Watkins’ take also holds a tinge of defensiveness: “We don’t call ourselves anything,” the guitarist has said. “We just mix the kinds of music we would like to listen to into what we do, which is based in bluegrass.”

“I’m glad we won [a Grammy] in the folk category because it’s unspecified stylistically,” Sara Watkins admits now.

Considering the company they kept — and that they beat to win their Grammy — Nickel Creek’s eager forays out of the country/bluegrass realm have proved astoundingly worthwhile.

“We did not expect to win,” Watkins insists. “I wasn’t even nervous. I was expecting them to say [fellow Best Folk Album nominees] Johnny Cash or Steve Earle.”

Safety in numbers

Watkins, the trio’s youngest third, is the only member who hasn’t ventured beyond the confines of Nickel Creek (brother Sean and Thile have released one and three solo discs, respectively).

“I’ve been fortunate to play with Sean and Chris, whose music and songwriting abilities continue to challenge me,” Watkins artfully offers.

All three musicians have been to college, at least for a few semesters, and Sean holds an associate’s degree. His sister, in her nearest concession of regret, says, “We actually all miss school and plan to go back sometime.

“We love to learn,” she adds.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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