About four miles down the coast of the Pacific Ocean from Crescent City, California, in the Redwood forest, there is a creek called Nickel Creek which runs from the hills about a mile down to Endart's Beach. Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins grew up at the other end of the state, but the fact remains: it is the only place called "Nickel Creek" in California, their home state. There is also a Nickel Creek in Nevada, and due to California's absurd geometry, the one in Nevada is closer to their childhood home. There are also Nickel Creeks in Alaska, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and two in Idaho. Any of these could be the one from which the new bluegrass-influenced band takes their name--their website is mute on this point.

They were each bluegrass musicians in their own right before age sixteen (Sara as young as ten). Chris and Sean were studying mandolin under the wing of John Moore the mandolin player for Bluegrass Etc. Sara, Sean's younger sister, was learning fiddle at the same time from band member Dennis Caplinger. When they had become good enough to play together, Chris' father Scott Thile played bass for them, and they had a band. The idea had originally been that it would be "cute" to have a kid's bluegrass band. Turns out, though, that touring and playing bluegrass for ten years--some would argue the ten most awkward years of a person's life--makes you good at it. When other teens were writing bad, angsty poetry, Nickel Creek were writing bad angsty poetry and setting it to skillful and enjoyable bluegrass music. The same year Sara turned eighteen, they released their debut eponymous album. That means it was named for the band, which was probably named for the creek.

Alison Krauss, famous for her own bluegrass-tinted country (or is that country-tinted bluegrass?) career, produced the album. Scott Thile played bass for some songs on the album, but the writing is mostly Sean's, and the playing is Nickel Creek's. Traditional bluegrass songs are there, but you'll see a few titles that you don't know, and a few you know from other places: The House of Tom Bombadil for example--an instrumental probably taken from Tolkien.

The band is not traditional bluegrass, and they go to great pains to share this fact. They're promoted as bluegrass musicians that listen to other music: Elliot Smith, Radiohead, Bela Fleck, Turtle Island String Quartet, Edgar Meyer, Pat Metheny, Murray Perahia and Bach. Fortunately, they do actually listen. Like the royal families of Europe, today's popular country music is grotesquely inbred: today's country musicians grew up listening to the same six or seven country musicians as their parents did. A "fresh" infusion of American Top 40 has only served to thin the blood, leading to poppy, crappy country that's too pale to even sit in Bill Monroe's shadow. A little Radiohead and some Bach might be just what country--or is it bluegrass?--needs.

Nickel Creek fits the bill. The album is a solid debut. Their second album, This Side, is even better, and even more diverse. Each of the players has released a solo album, and all of them have collaborated with Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket) on Mutual Admiration Society. Similar sounds include some Guster, some of The Samples, and a little Vertical Horizon. If you like any of them, you'll like Nickel Creek.

  1. Ode to a Butterfly
  2. The Lighthouse's Tale
  3. Out of the Woods
  4. House of Tom Bombadil
  5. Reasons Why
  6. When You Come Back Down
  7. Sweet Afton
  8. Cuckoo's Nest
  9. The Hand Song
  10. Robin and Marian
  11. The Fox
  12. Pastures New

Produced by Alison Krauss
Nickel Creek uses D'Addario strings.
Chris Thile uses Gibson and Dudenbostal mandolins, Flatiron Bouzoukis, Rane electronics, Trace Elliot amplifiers, and Butterfly Table Tennis Equipment.
Sean Watkins uses Bourgeois guitars, L.R. Baggs electronics, and Manta bodyboards.
Sara Watkins uses L.R. Baggs electronics and Band-Aid brand bandages.

Liner notes, Nickel Creek, ©2000 Sugar Hill Records