Breaking the boundaries of bluegrass

Innovative Nickel Creek musicians find traditional limits of the genre a comfort and a challenge


Critics have called their playing "jaw-droppingly fast and slick," their harmonies "chilling" and "strangely sweet," their eagerness to experiment exhilarating. Still in their mid-20s, they've won a Grammy, sold more than a million albums, and been dubbed by Time as artistic innovators to watch in the new millennium.

"To hear Nickel Creek," Time has written of the acoustic trio that takes the stage at Rams Head Live tonight as part of a 53-city tour, "is to hear the vibrant reinvention of a classic form."

That form would be bluegrass, the traditional but sometimes hidebound American genre that gives the hard-to-categorize California-based band the foundation for a sound that is both a comfort and a challenge. "Bluegrass will always be a part of what we do," says guitarist Sean Watkins, 28, the band's soft-spoken elder statesman, already considered an heir apparent to the legacies of such giants as Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Dan Crary. "We're based in it. But we're not trying to lose it; we're not trying to keep it. All we want to do is keep making good, interesting music."

That mission began 16 years ago, when Watkins and his future bandmates - his younger sister, Sara, a fiddler, and mandolinist Chris Thile, both 8 at the time - were San Diego schoolchildren. Thile's musician father, Scott, exposed them to a local band, Bluegrass Etc., and they fell in love with the sound. The three took up instruments themselves, formed their own band, and began entering - and winning - music contests all over Southern California.

"We'd compete as a group, as individuals, against each other and our friends," says Watkins with a laugh. "I guess we learned our chops pretty early. Musically and otherwise, it was a cool way to grow up."

Professionally speaking, it was also effective. By the time he was 10, Thile was drawing national attention for his frighteningly complex compositions and a sizzling picking style that mined Irish, classical and bluegrass influences. Having already won national mandolin competitions, Thile recorded the first of his five critically acclaimed solo albums at age 13. His lifelong friends, the Watkins siblings, progressed similarly, studying their crafts under members of Bluegrass Etc.

Genre superstar Alison Krauss, a multiple Grammy winner who was herself a childhood fiddle prodigy, heard the trio at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., in the late 1990s and decided to produce its mostly bluegrass debut album, Nickel Creek (2000).

"I can't imagine what they'll be doing in a year," she said as the album went to press. It has sold more than 500,000 copies.

From blue to new

As Krauss knows, bluegrass can provide a rigorous but ultimately frustrating training ground. With its traditional emphasis on certain instruments - guitar, standup bass and mandolin for rhythm, fiddle and five-string banjo for lead playing - and its gospel roots, it can promote lots of individual virtuosity but also, in the longer run, encumber creativity.

Nickel Creek never met a boundary it didn't enjoy overstepping.

"You do have to master the specific intricacies of the style," Watkins says, "just as you would in classical or jazz. So we all had to learn to play fast and clean." But as they progressed, the three were exposed just as often to "newgrass" innovators - the eclectic banjo wizard Bela Fleck and the Celtic-inflected fiddler Mark O'Connor, for instance - as they were to the old-time picking of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley.

"And we listened to Beach Boys, the Beatles, all kinds of other stuff from the beginnning," says Watkins. "We'd hear new stuff at contests, swap tapes, learn other styles. You know - `Hey, you've got to hear these guys!' For us, it was always kind of a bastardized experience."

The musicians' evolution has generated an increasingly spicy mix of Celtic, pop, classical and jazz, all delivered on the acoustic instruments of their youth and with the locomotive energy of a "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" jam.

And their three records exhibit an increasing musical complexity. The first featured a tough but sweet sound: "Ode to a Butterfly" was as lilting as anything Krauss ever served up, but the instrumental "Pastures New" was as hard-driving as the most foot-stomping Earl Scruggs. Their 2003 follow-up, This Side, echoed Revolver-era Beatles, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Mozart, resulting in a diverse compilation that won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album and also went gold.

More to say

The new Why Should The Fire Die? released in August after three years of collaboration, includes a gentle cover of a Bob Dylan song, two high-powered bluegrass-style instrumentals, and a number of haunting, sometimes surrealistic Thile originals, including one, "Best Of Luck," in which a high school crush morphs, in time, into marital infidelity and stalking. It also speaks of a band growing into its dazzling technique.

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