Five cents worth

Old habits: A five-year hiatus did little to cool the chemistry between Nickel Creek's members. They celebrate the band's 25th anniversary with an album and tour. Brantley Gutierrez

Nickel Creek’s reunion tour stops in Asheville

Five years ago, Nickel Creek — one of the most respected young acoustic bands in America — called it quits. Now, to celebrate 25 years since that band formed, its members have regrouped with a brand-new album, A Dotted Line, and a tour. They’ll swing through Asheville for a night at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium this week.

Back to the breakup. It was shocking and not surprising all at once. After all, the trio had been together for 20 years, since fiddler Sara Watkins and then-guitarist Chris Thile were 8 years old, and then-mandolinist (and Sara’s brother) Sean Watkins was 11. By the time of the split, the elder Watkins and Thile had long since swapped instruments and proven to be two of the finest pickers on the circuit. Sara leaned into the fiddle like nobody’s business, developing a standard of chopping and sawing that is rarely matched outside of a small circle of progressive players. There were giant festival headlining dates and Grammy Awards. But, sometimes it’s important to pause for a moment and take a deep breath.

“We’ve never really thought too far ahead, even when we were making records together on a regular basis,” Sara says. “If someone asked us where we thought we’d be in five years, we never really had a good answer. We just made the band [happen, from] record to record and tour to tour. There was never any question that we were going to make another record until we finished touring after Why Should the Fire Die? We were so exhausted, it just made sense to take a break.”

In the years since, Nickel Creek’s members have been doing anything but resting. The Watkins siblings embarked on a number of collaborative projects, including The Watkins Family Hour live-show series at Largo in Los Angeles and Works Progress Administration (with Glen Phillips, Benmont Tench and others). Sean teamed up with the likes of Tom Brosseau and Fiction Family as well as supporting his sister’s work.

Between her stints with indie-folk band The Decemberists and public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, Sara released a pair of solo albums that won considerable critical praise. Thile started the sonically daring string band Punch Brothers and developed a body of work that earned him, among other things, a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

To explain the reunion after a half-decade break, Sean says, “We were first going to do an EP and then do 25 shows for our 25th anniversary. In writing a few songs, we realized it was really easy to come up with an EP worth of songs, so we wrote a [full] album … it actually happened very quickly.”

“We only had 10 songs when we did this record. There were a few that we had going into it as padding, on the back burner, that didn’t make it onto Why Should the Fire Die?” Sara adds. “We knew the recording process itself would be really short. [We had] 11 days and 10 songs, and we weren’t sure we were going to finish. But we made it in the nick of time.”

The result is a stunning blend of country-folk instrumentals and what can only be called acoustic hard-rock. There’s also a danceable genre-defiant interlude titled “Hayloft” and a handful of cuddly love songs. But, for the most part, A Dotted Line sounds exactly the way Nickel Creek would probably have sounded with or without the five-year break. That’s what happens when band members grow up together — the musical telepathy continues despite any distance, difference or separation. The way one player’s mandolin chucks support the subtle sawing of a well-bowed fiddle, as the third member leads them into a tension-building three-part harmony, is all instinct at this point. Of course, instinct isn’t the opposite of hard work. It just means that the hard work can flow more naturally despite any determined period of rest.

As for whether this reunion — and the requisite reminder of the trio’s collaborative chemistry — has increased the possibility of more Nickel Creek projects down the road, Sara says, “We have no idea. We feel like we’re always going to be a band, even if this is the last tour we do, which I have no reason to think will be the case. … We’ve spent so much of our lives together at this point. We’ll probably still do things here and there. I have no idea if we’ll make another record, but it’s been a really fun process this time, for sure.”

WHO: Nickel Creek with The Secret Sisters
WHERE: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
WHEN: Thursday, April 17, 8 p.m. $35/$47


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About Kim Ruehl
Kim Ruehl's work has appeared in Billboard, NPR Music, The Bluegrass Situation, Yes magazine, and elsewhere. She's formerly the editor-in-chief of No Depression, and her book, 'A Singing Army: Zilphia Horton and the Highlander Folk School,' is forthcoming from University of Texas Press. Follow me @kimruehl

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