Up on Nickel Creek

Acoustic trio expands boundaries of bluegrass

San Diego is a long way from Appalachia. Nevertheless, Nickel Creek, consisting of three twentysomething native Californians — fiddle player Sara Watkins, her brother, guitarist Sean, and mandolinist Chris Thile — is becoming one of the most popular acts on the bluegrass circuit. The act is blazing a new trail that travels beyond the traditional parameters that define the genre. Their producer, Allison Krauss, calls the sound "just Nickel Creek music," combining elements of bluegrass, jazz, classical, and even some neo-psychedelic pop.

On the eve of Creek's upcoming tour, Thile shared his observations of the band's musical career, a history that encompasses almost 20 years of his life. "I started playing music when I was 5 years old, and we formed the band when I was 9 or 10," he recalls. "When we started out, we were sort of a novelty act. Our youth was probably what got us a lot of initial attention, since there weren't any kid bluegrass bands around."

The band established itself as a legitimate act by playing endless bluegrass festivals throughout the 1990s, but realized that they wanted to do more than traditional music. When the three decided to create their own style, they knew that it would potentially alienate their core bluegrass audience. "Once we actually started working out our own sound, we avoided calling ourselves a 'bluegrass' band," Thile explains. "We never felt like we ever really had both feet in the bluegrass camp at any time, and we were aware of how uppity some of the hardcore bluegrass people can be. Lucky for us, they had already pretty much gotten out their frustrations on people like Bela Fleck, New Grass Revival and Allison Krauss."

In addition to drifting away from the roots of bluegrass, the band found itself being revered by fans of the hippie jam-band scene, something that both pleases and puzzles Thile. "Somehow we managed to rope in some of the 'jam band' fans, not intentionally, and there's really not much kinship with them," he says. "Musically, we run a pretty tight ship, and keep the jamming to a minimum."

Both Thile and Sean Watkins have released solo albums in addition to their Nickel Creek output, and all three members have received numerous awards for their instrumental virtuosity. Sara is a highly sought-after session player with credentials ranging from Darol Anger to Dolly Parton, and she is in the process of working on her own solo album.

Thile, whose latest solo set, Deceiver, is set for release Oct. 12, has been making albums since he was 13. When asked about his first solo album, 1994's Leading Off, Thile sheepishly admits, "I listened to it very recently, and I can say that it was as good as I could have done back then." But it's nothing like his new album, which sees Thile becoming ever more comfortable with experimentation. "All the sounds you hear on Deceiver are from me," Thile says. "It's one man's perspective on a variety of instruments that he doesn't know how to play." Working beyond the typical scope of convention, Thile delivers a pastiche of sound that simultaneously baffles and astounds.

Expect to hear some of these new tunes when Creek comes to town. "We have reworked some of my new material for the band," Thiele says. "And we will also be showcasing some of the songs we are working on for the next Nickel Creek album." When asked where that album will take the band, he replies, "The first two albums point to the next one, but the further we stray from folk music, at the same time we seem to be getting closer to it."