Sara Watkins is a singer-songwriter and fiddler from California. She debuted in 1989 as fiddler and founding member of the progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek along with her brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile. In addition to singing and playing fiddle, she also plays ukulele and guitar, and played percussion while touring with The Decemberists. She has two solo albums, Sara Watkins and Sun Midnight Sun on Nonesuch Records. In addition to touring on her own, she just completed a Nickel Creek reunion tour in celebration of the band’s first release in seven years, A Dotted Line. Sara and Sean Watkins also produce the Watkins Family Hour, a monthly residency and podcast at the Los Angeles venue Largo, featuring an eclectic group of guest musicians, comedy and more.
Distinguished by their youth and eclectic taste, Nickel Creek became a word-of-mouth sensation on the progressive bluegrass scene and soon found their appeal spreading beyond the genre's core audience. Guitarist Sean Watkins, fiddler Sara Watkins, and mandolin/banjo/bouzouki player Chris Thile first started performing together in 1989, when all three were preteens and taking music lessons in their native San Diego. They met while watching the local band Bluegrass Etc., which put on weekly performances in a pizza parlor. A bluegrass promoter liked the idea of such a young band, and thus Nickel Creek were formed, with Thile's father Scott joining them on bass.
Nickel Creek were regulars on the festival circuit through most of the '90s, and during that time, Thilerecorded two solo albums, 1994's Leading Off... and 1997's Stealing Second. In 1998, with help from Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek landed a record deal with the roots music label Sugar Hill. Krauss produced their self-titled debut album, which was released in 2000; with the kids apparently all right, Scott subsequently retired from the band. Though it was decidedly a bluegrass record, Nickel Creek boasted elements of classical, jazz, and rock & roll both classic and alternative; naturally, the influence of progressive bluegrass figures like Krauss, Edgar Meyer, and Béla Fleck was also apparent. Perhaps aided by the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which brought traditional roots music to a whole new collegiate audience, Nickel Creek became a slow-building hit; by early 2002, it had gone gold, climbed into the country Top 20, and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album. Meanwhile, Sean released his solo debut, Let It Fall, in 2001, and Thilefollowed suit with Not All Who Wander Are Lost.
Nickel Creek released their sophomore set, This Side, in 2002; it debuted in the Top 20 of the pop charts and went all the way to number two on the country listings. Even more eclectic than its predecessor, the Krauss-produced album turned indie rock fans' heads with a cover of Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger." This Side won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in early 2003, after which Sean issued his second solo album, 26 Miles. In 2005, the group worked with producers Tony Berg and Eric Valentine (the latter had worked with Smash Mouth and Queens of the Stone Age) to produce Why Should the Fire Die?, a dark and introspective collection of new material that found the trio steering even further away from their bluegrass beginnings.
In mid-2006, Nickel Creek announced they would be taking an indefinite hiatus following a scheduled tour the next year so the bandmembers could concentrate on solo work. Thile eventually formed Punch Brothers, releasing a debut album, Punch, on Nonesuch in 2009. Sara Watkins also released an album on Nonesuch in 2009, the self-titled Sara Watkins, which was produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame. Sean Watkins, who had formed Fiction Family with Jon Foreman (of Switchfoot), also released an album in 2009, the duo's self-titled Fiction Family from the ATO label. Meanwhile, siblings Sara and Sean continued to host a monthly revue called The Watkins Family Hour at Hollywood's Largo club, playing free-form and impromptu sets with a wide array of musicians who might be in town for the evening, including at different times Gabe Witcher, Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz, Jon Brion, Michael Witcher, Jackson Browne, Glen Phillips, Mark O'Connor, Ethan Johns, Matt Chamberlain, Tim O'Brien, and Tom Brosseau, among others.
Early in 2014, Nickel Creek announced they were launching a reunion to celebrate their 25th anniversary. A new album called A Dotted Line appeared on Nonesuch on April 1, 2014, and the group supported the record with an extensive tour. ~ Steve Huey & Steve Leggett
I'm With Her
All mainstays of the acoustic, folk and roots music world, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan crossed paths many times throughout their careers. So it comes as no surprise that, after an impromptu performance at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, all the pieces fell into place for these three acclaimed musicians to collaborate. Watkins, Jarosz and O’Donovan’s first performance will be at 2015’s Celtic Connections Festival in Scotland, an event at which they have each performed individually.
Watkins Family Hour
For singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalists Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins, the Watkins Family Hour has long been an oasis from the rigors of the road, a laboratory where they can try out new material or master beloved cover songs. Their monthly show at L.A.’s famed venue Largo has been hailed as a convivial, communal event where they welcome an impressive array of musician friends old and new. While it’s true that fans who aren’t lucky enough to be in L.A. and score a coveted ticket can check out the proceedings via youtube or on the podcasts the Watkins siblings have created, the fun of these evenings is really in being there as the unscripted show unfolds. The Watkins Family Hour is always full of surprises, unexpected guests, one-of-a-kind match-ups; serendipity plays as much of a role as virtuosity. Fiona Apple often joins them, and recent guests have included Dawes, Jackson Browne, Nikka Costa, Booker T. and actor-singer John C. Reilly, as well as comedians Paul F. Tompkins, Nick Kroll and Pete Holmes.
In July 2015, the siblings released the first-ever Watkins Family Hour LP on their own Family Hour Records imprint. The album, recorded live over three days in the studio of their friend and producer-engineer Sheldon Gomberg, beautifully captures the freewheeling spirit of the shows. It features Apple and the stellar players who have become a de facto house band: drummer Don Heffington, pedal steel and dobro player Greg Leisz, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and keyboardist Benmont Tench, each of whom take a vocal turn at the mic. The Watkins Family Hour is an all-covers affair; tracks include Sara doing Lindsey Buckingham’s “Steal Your Heart Away,” Sean essaying Roger Miller’s wistful “Not In Nottingham,” from Disney’s 1973 animated Robin Hood, and Apple singing “Where I Ought To Be,” originally performed by Skeeter Davis.
Sara and Sean, raised in the San Diego area, were eight and twelve years old when they partnered, on fiddle and guitar respectively, with eight year old mandolinist Chris Thile in 1989 to form Nickel Creek. By 2002, the prodigious trio had garnered a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy for its second album, the Allison Krauss-produced This Side. Sara and Sean learned about the original Largo on Fairfax Avenue from Toad the Wet Sprocket singer-songwriter Glenn Phillips and it became their go-to local spot. They started out as audience members but soon were coaxed on stage. Owner Mark Flanagan fostered an open, cooperative environment that attracted an eclectic list of regulars, most famously musician-producer Jon Brion, who established a popular weekly residency, as well as musicians like Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and Brad Mehldau. Fiona Apple has long been a familiar face, often joining Brion and now becoming an integral part of the Family Hour.
As Sara recalls, “One day Flanny said to us, you guys should have a show; we’ll call it the Watkins Family Hour. I don’t care if only seventeen people come. And we said okay. We invited a friend of ours, Gabe Witcher [now a Punch Brother], to play fiddle with us. For each show we’d invite different friends to join in and the show became something we planned on whenever we were home from tour for a few days. Back then we were touring almost year round, three weeks on, one week off. The Family Hour show began as a chance to fly by the seat of our pants, play songs we simply liked to play, experiment with new, unfinished original material. It was a good excuse to learn cover songs we always loved, and most importantly to get together with other musician friends from the area, and say hey, we’ve got this show, do you want to bring a couple of songs down? Play by yourself, play with us – whatever you want. In doing that, you get to work up songs with people, practice a little bit, or just wing it and enjoy being in the moment with whomever is on stage and these hundred people in the audience. “
It’s also very natural for the Watkinses. As Sean explains, “Sara and I grew up in the bluegrass scene. People are traveling around, going to festivals. When they are not playing on stage, they are playing off stage around a campsite, at somebody’s house or in a trailer somewhere. That’s the mentality we grew up with; that felt normal.”
Being reared in the tradition of bluegrass and folk, continues Sara, “it gave us this bug that craves this kind of reactive playing, that encourages improvisation and mixing up band members. In bluegrass and roots music, there is this wonderful cross-pollination that happens. It’s very common for someone to be in two or three bands. And that strengthens the individual musician, keeps you on your toes, teaches you how to be a better leader in one situation and a supportive teammate when that’s called for. I feel lucky to experience those different sides of being a musician, to have those kind of moments, those Family Hour moments, where it is always different, and you get to share the same space with musicians who are doing great things – to stand there in awe and try to contribute something special.”
As the Watkins Family Hour has become an established part of the Largo calendar, fitting nicely into the club’s new space at the Coronet Theater on La Cienega Boulevard, the show has evolved to where it truly can be taken on the road – and shared with Sara’s and Sean’s fans around the country. As Sara observes, “It’s become a good blend of organized, planned, arranged harmonies and good quality moments on stage that we’ve prepared… and some great surprises that happen when a guest just remembers a song they want to do or when somebody walks in the back door with their guitar and wants to play a song on a whim. It’s the people on stage who make that happen; it’s just a matter of getting the right group of people together. ”
-- Michael Hill