Highway's Song

For Sara Watkins It’s All About Family

Sara Watkins

When they were very young, the early days of Nickel Creek: Sara and Sean Watkins, Chris Thile.

Sara and Sean Watkins.

The town of Vista, northwest of San Diego proper, seems an unlikely place for Americana-bluegrass stars to be raised. Just seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, it rests among foothills on a pathway to Southern California deserts, valleys, and mountains. But, this is the town where brother and sister Sara and Sean Watkins were nurtured by loving parents and a unique community of musicians into a love for authentic country music.

When the two musicians arrive at Bernardo Winery in San Diego for Sara’s solo show, they must feel nostalgia mixed with a sense of a homecoming. Their nearby home in Vista is where their deep roots grew them into accomplished musicians, artists, and entertainers. Their life here taught them to create a musical community that resembles a family. In addition to their years with the innovative New Grass band, Nickel Creek, they have helped form a unique once-a-month old-timey radio show at the Largo in Los Angeles. Guests have included artists like Jackson Browne, Booker T, and Fiona Apple.

If all of this weren’t enough, Sara Watkins has been part of a super-trio, known as I’m With Her, which includes singer-songwriters Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz.

Watkins released her third solo album, 2016’s Young in All the Wrong Ways. It is a brilliant departure from her usual acoustic sound, with hard rock edges and occasional visitations into alt-rock and psychedelia. With country music being its unifying force, the album is unique among her recorded work, creating new musical directions.

It has been decades since, with her parent’s guidance, she first picked up acoustic stringed instruments. Sean took a while to settle on guitar and mandolin. But Sara decided to learn the violin when she was six years old. She stayed with her first instrument, which remains her constant in performance.

The allure of acoustic roots music for Sara was the string band culture that has been growing in the San Diego area since the early ’60s. When they were still young children, Sean and Sara were introduced to a bluegrass scene that formed at That Pizza Place in nearby Oceanside, with jam gatherings every Saturday night. That community-centered around a group known as Bluegrass Etc., with John Moore and Dennis Caplinger. Moore became Sean’s guitar and mandolin teacher while Caplinger taught violin to Sara. Soon, other mentors came along, such as bluegrass artists like Dan Clary, John Hickman, and fiddle great Byron Berline, who influenced Sara to achieve even greater heights on the fiddle.

According to Sara, “Those Saturday nights—that was where we met Chris Thile,” Sean remembers. “There really wasn’t very much roots music in the area back then. So, there were all these people into bluegrass. It rubbed off on us. We were there every Saturday night. Soon they got us playing with them.”

The Watkins parents, both public school teachers, had summers off. Not only did they make sure to verse their children in the music of artists like Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, and Pete Seeger, they also took them to outdoor music festivals scattered throughout California and Nevada, where Sara and Sean continued to hone their craft. “Before we were playing music,” Sara says, “our parents would take us camping during those summer months. When we got into the music, they would take us out of the way to bluegrass festivals in the middle of nowhere. I remember going to a music camp in the San Gabriel Mountains. We went to the desert, to Calico Ghost Town, and to local festivals at Julian where they had banjo and fiddle contests.”

The Watkins parents and the music community that surrounded them helped lay the foundation for what later became The Watkins Family Hour. This raw material—nurtured in private lessons, at-home jams, bluegrass pizza gatherings, and national festival exposure—was what built Nickel Creek. Named after one of Berline’s instrumentals, Nickel Creek had its first performance at That Pizza Place in 1989, with Thile’s father, Scott, on stand-up bass.

As fate would have it, the trio of youngsters eventually attracted the attention of bluegrass-country veteran Alison Krauss. In 2000, she produced their now-classic self-titled album, which earned them a Grammy nomination. As a result, they developed a diverse audience that included bluegrass fans and critics as well as fans of Americana, roots, alt-country, and rock.

The albums Sean and Sara Watkins made with Chris Thile, as Nickel Creek, during the first decade of the 2000s solidified their reputation as artists who transcended genre with an instrumental mastery that left many of their peers stunned. The trio had an instinct for songwriting and song interpretation that was particularly strong on vocal and instrumental phrasing. They became a hot-ticket item for many established artists to include on tour bills, including giants of Americana like Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill. Dolly Parton was so taken with Nickel Creek that she invited them to perform as her backing band on the 2001 Grammy Awards show.

However, it was their 2002 album, This Side, that proved to be their most successful release and demonstrated Sara and Sean’s ability to move outside of the bluegrass fold revealing the influence alternative rock had on the young artists. They were able to comfortably, seamlessly enlarge their canvas to include music that was both experimental and accessible. Such creativity has followed them throughout their career—with Nickel Creek as well as the many projects that have sprung up during and since. This instinct for innovation has contributed to their appeal to a broad audience, many of whom might never attend a bluegrass concert.

For Sean and Sara, the on-again/off-again status of their original band is par for the course in their musical adventures. “One key thing for the musical partnership with Sean,” Sara says, “is that we have outside interests, but we still come together. Being in one musical project can be a strain. So much pressure is put on that one project. But, there is this seamless flow for us [with our] various outings. It’s how we learned to work together.”

The Watkins Family Hour has given Sara a centered place for creative renewal. “We’re part of a community of creative nurturance that leads over to Watkins Family Hour at the Largo,” she said. “And you never know who’s going to show up: Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, as well as regulars like Benmont Tench and Don Heffington.”

As Sarah Watkins continues her solo tour, which includes an appearance at this year’s Newport Folk Festival, she carries on her tradition of affirming a musical family. If she finds renewal through the Watkins Family Hour, then, like a good ambassador, she takes the same nurturing energy she grew up with and generously gives it away to anyone who takes the time to stop to listen.

For Sara Watkins, this music community is an everyday, moment-by-moment, living, breathing reality. As they tour and find their way to an even greater audience, her music has the power to transform strangers into a family, even if only for the length of an album or show. “I know it sounds like a cliché,” Sara Watkins explains, “but the music is like we’re playing in a living room, but it is a call to a larger living room with a taller stage. It’s a call to us all to join in with the music.”

Sara Watkins, Sunday, August 25, 6:30pm at the Bernardo Winery, 13330 Paseo Del Verano.

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