Nickel Creek was a band made up primarily of young musical whiz kids. They're first self-titled album came out in March 21, 2000, and during the intervening years has become a classic. Three of its four members were still under 23 years old when they took a hiatus from recording and doing live shows together. Two are siblings, Sara Watkins on fiddle and vocals, and Sean Watkins on guitar, mandolin and vocals. The other two players on Nickel Creek's first album were father and son. Chris Thile plays plays mandolin, bouzouki, banjo, and vocals, while his father Scott, plays bass. Scott left the group soon after this first album to resume his regular gig as a piano tuner, when bluegrass veteran Mark Schatz agreed to tour with the band.
While Nickel Creek's members are well schooled in bluegrass essentials, their music is certainly not straight-ahead traditional stuff. Instead it shows strong Celtic, contemporary pop, swing jazz, hard bop, and classical influences. The result is what could best be called modern acoustic-based semi-traditional popular music. In addition to several original instrumentals like "Ode to a Butterfly" which will have mandolinists' jaws dropping to knee level, there are several strong original songs here. "The Lighthouse's Tale" is a nice twist on the old boy-loves-girl tale. Here the girl goes to sea and dies in a storm, and is buried in the sand by the boy, who then jumps off the lighthouse. It's told from the point of view of the lighthouse. Cheery stuff. For covers there's a Tim O'Brien and Danny O'Keefe tune "When You Come Back Down", Robert Burns' "Sweet Afton", and the traditional tune "Cuckoo's Nest".
Alison Krauss produced this CD. Gary Paczoza held down the engineering chair while Doug Sax did the mastering. And now, you can get it in vinyl as well as CD. It sounds as good as any huge-budget "platinum-bound" Nashville production, maybe better since it has better dynamics with less universal compression and limiting. If you want to hear what a well-recorded guitar, mandolin, and fiddle should sound like, this is the disc for you.
It's tough for "old dogs" like myself to listen to "Nickel Creek" without pangs of remorse. I know I'll never be able to play mandolin as well as Chris Thile, or guitar as cleanly as Sean Watkins. Still it's a bit like watching a thirteen year old gymnast during the Olympics, not only do you marvel at their physical prowess, but you wonder how much better they can get, how life will temper their art, and how their lives will turn out. Unlike young gymnasts, Nickel Creek's members seem to have a well above average grasp of musical history. I can only ruminate on how life will temper their music. Wherever they end up, this release demonstrates that Nickel Creek's members have a head start over mere mortal musicians.