Nickel Creek

LOOKING AT THE YOUNG MEMBERS OF Newgrass phenomenon Nickel Creek, you’d never guess they’ve been playing together for 12 years. But listening to them, you’d think they’d been playing together their whole lives. The fact is, they have.

Sean Watkins, 24, his sister Sara Watkins and Chris Thile, both 20, got turned on to bluegrass music at a very young age growing up in San Diego, Calif. Their parents would take them to see bands at a local pizza parlor and those musicians made quite an impression on the youngsters.

“I think I was four when they got me onstage to sing a song once that I requested,” Sara told POLLSTAR. “Then I started playing when I was six.”

She said her brother and their good friend Chris began playing about a year before that. The kids would practice their chops on Saturday nights as guests of the pizza parlor band.

All three moved on to child prodigy status and have all been honored separately in various contests Sean on guitar, Sara on fiddle and Chris on mandolin.

Together, they have been making a name for Nickel Creek by playing festivals for many years. With their self-titled debut album on Sugar Hill (produced by hero and mentor Alison Krauss) and a proper business team pulled together just in the last year, they have recently begun to headline their own shows.

“We’ve grown up playing festivals where we were part of a 20-act lineup and we were just happy to be there, filling in the cracks between these other great players,” Sara said. “It’s just really exciting to do these shows and see people coming to see us. We’ve been doing theatres, and a lot of places have been packed.”

Nickel Creek, which signed with Sugar Hill in 1998, courted the label for quite awhile before getting a break. Sara said Chris has been recording for Sugar Hill since he was 12, so the band was familiar with the company and was set on working with the label. (Sean also just released a solo album for Sugar Hill.)

“We kept sending them little crummy tapes over the years [saying], ‘Hi, you should sign us,'” Sara remembered. “And those songs big mistakes because they were horrible recordings and very unprofessional. Oh my gosh! I’m embarrassed that we sent them. And go figure, they never signed us,” she laughed.

That was until the band got serious about scoring a deal and started looking at other labels. At that point, Sugar Hill “finally submitted to our begging,” Sara joked.

Within the last year, Vector Management, Mike Robertson Management and William Morris Nashville have come on board to round out Nickel Creek’s business team and things are now kicking into high gear.

Nickel Creek

“We’re just so blessed to have this big supportive team that is back there and not making any money right now, but they’re just making an investment. Their faith in us is very encouraging,” Sara said.

Much of that encouragement comes from WMA agent Jay Williams, who said Nickel Creek is one of the most talented bands he’s ever seen.

“Their live shows are amazing and as a result, we’ve been able to take them from selling out 150-seat listening rooms to selling out theatres and larger clubs,” Williams boasted. “Because they can’t be defined by any specific genre, anyone who thinks they’re (just) a bluegrass band needs to see them live; their potential is limitless.”

Between the faith, the work ethic and the public’s hankering for something different, Nickel Creek is getting a lot of attention lately. The band was nominated for two Grammys this year, won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2000 and has shared stages with the likes of Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.

And in the midst of the teen-pop craze, Nickel Creek is introducing its hybrid roots music to a younger audience, as well as wowing more mature fans.

Sara said the band’s videos on CMT are helping to perk curiosity and build a diverse fanbase. Even those who are not necessarily country music fans are intrigued by the young trio and their not-so-typical music.

“The really amazing thing is that people are getting turned on to something that’s totally different and it’s just a real blessing to be a part of maybe opening people’s ears to something out of their comfort zone,” Sara said.

Though the band has a firm grasp on tradition, the members incorporate many contemporary influences. Besides adding Celtic, jazz and country flavors to the mix, Nickel Creek cites pop-rock influences including Toad The Wet Sprocket, Elliott Smith and Counting Crows.

In fact, the trio recently recorded with Toad The Wet Sprocket singer Glen Phillips for his solo album and will do live dates with him in addition to touring behind their own record.

Joined by bassist Derek Jones on tour, Nickel Creek has a slew of dates all over the U.S. this summer headlining theatres, playing festivals and opening a few shows for Vince Gill.