Nickel Creek Make Splash With Debut

Young, award-winning players expand horizons on first album, produced by Alison Krauss.

Is this the future of bluegrass?

Nickel Creek's Chris Thile,

who just turned 19, and

COLOR="#003163">Sara, 18, and

COLOR="#003163">Sean Watkins, 22, are already

acclaimed, prize-winning musicians.

And now they're out with a remarkable debut album, the just-released

Nickel Creek, which arrives with the most recognized name in

bluegrass today, Alison

Krauss, attached as producer.

"Alison attended one of the summer 'Bluegrass at the Ryman' series shows

in the summer of 1998," Sugar Hill Records general manager Bev Paul


"Nickel Creek put on a stunning show. ... Alison just went crazy for them.

She came running backstage, hugged them all and told them that she would

like to help them.

"That evening and that level of acceptance marked the passing of a

threshold for them," Paul said, "and is still inspiring them to move full-tilt

ahead with their own ideas and visions for their original music."

Thile, who earned some notoriety for jamming with such elder statesmen of

the form as Ricky Skaggs

and David Grisman, has

been nominated four years running as Mandolinist of the Year by the

International Bluegrass Music Association. Thile (pronounced "Theelee") is

studying classical music composition at Murray State University in Kentucky.

Sean Watkins, at 16, was a finalist as both mandolin player and guitarist at

the National Flatpicking Guitar Championships, and Sara won the Arizona

state fiddle championship at 15. (Dad plays bass in Nickel Creek; Thile's

father, Scott, 41, completes

the lineup.)

"Alison may have seen Chris playing on his own or the early versions of the

band when they were all in their early teens," Paul said of that gig with the

Tony Rice Unit, which

revealed Nickel Creek as a "fully developed band."

"But clearly [she] hadn't seen them recently," Paul said.

Nickel Creek has been developing for a full decade, since the young

musicians began hanging at bluegrass night at That Pizza Place in Carlsbad,


"I loved how free everything was. You could improvise stuff," Sean Watkins

said of his introduction to bluegrass. "And I just liked the way it sounded. It

was fun music."

(The Watkinses now live in nearby Vista, also the new home of

COLOR="#003163">Mark O'Connor, whose Nashville fiddle

camp the two attended.)

While firmly rooted in the traditional high, lonesome sound, Nickel Creek

give free rein to other influences. Nickel Creek includes, for one, the

J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired "House of Tom Bombadil" (


dil.ram">RealAudio excerpt), written by Thile, who is also a "Star

Wars" fan. (His two solo Sugar Hill CDs sport "Star Wars"-based

instrumentals and, Thile said, he attended 12:01 a.m. and 3:30 a.m.

screenings of the most recent episode on its opening day.)

The album's diversity continues with "Out of the Woods" (


m">RealAudio excerpt) a Sinead

Lohan song; "Sweet Aflon," with lyrics drawn from the poetry

of Robert Burns; and a

contemporary Christian tale, "The Hand Song," in which Sara Watkins'

lovely, understated vocal delivery recalls that of fellow fiddler Krauss.

"My tastes keep expanding, to everything," Thile said, citing "of course, the

classical thing lately, a lot of Celtic music, a lot of jazz music."

"We're rooted in bluegrass because we started in it," Sean Watkins said, "but

we're branching out into all different areas. I've been trying jazz more, and

we do some more real progressive-type stuff ... try to keep it eclectic."