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.