When you think about bluegrass, you probably think about banjos, a bunch of old guys singing, and wide open spaces. You should also think about Sara Watkins and Nickel Creek. Along with her brother Sean Watkins and Chris Thile, they started the influential Nickel Creek in 1989, when she was only 8-years-old. The band changed bluegrass, fusing it with genres like indie rock to create something new. This innovation grabbed the attention of artists like Alison Krauss and earned the group a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2003.
After announcing an indefinite hiatus of Nickel Creek, Watkins has launched a successful solo career. Since 2009, she has released two albums that have evolved into her own unique pop-country hybrid that gets you tapping your foot and dancing in your chair. Her beautiful vocals and nostalgic lyrics are reminiscent of a summer night, especially the song, “You and Me” from her second album, Sun Midnight Sun.
But Watkins doesn’t just tour on her own. In between albums, she’s hit the road with many famous acts ranging from Jackson Browne to The Decemberists. She also hosts a monthly show, The Watkins Family Hour, with her brother and other friends, from Fiona Apple to John C. Reilly to Nick Kroll.
Watkins is currently on tour with Patty Griffin and Anaïs Mitchell as part of the Use Your Voice tour. Her third album is expected to released this summer.
Brightest Young Things: So let’s start with a big question: why bluegrass? You grew up in southern California so what drew you to the genre?
Sara Watkins: When you’re a kid, you listen to what your family is listening to. For my family, it was bluegrass. There was a band in San Diego, Bluegrass Etc, that played a weekly gig. My parents would take my brother and me every Saturday night for 7 or 8 years. These guys were great musicians and great teachers. Sean and I started taking lessons with them and they gave us a great foundation in bluegrass instrumentation. They were the lens through which I saw music for a very long time.
BYT: You’ve toured with some amazing acts. I was lucky enough to see you play with The Decemberists at Bonnaroo in 2011. What was that like?
SW: It was incredible. We had met over the years and had a lot of mutual friends. They needed a fiddle player who could sing, so they asked me. It was perfect timing. I had been working my first record really hard and toured the heck out of it. I didn’t have anything to write about so touring with The Decemberists was what I needed. I could work and take in the world again. You’re just the side man and don’t need all the info. You’re also less busy than when your name is on the ticket, so I had days free to read, watch movies, and just look up.
BYT: Right now you’re touring with two amazing women, Patty Griffin and Anaïs Mitchell. What’s that been like?
SW: It’s been great. I’ve been a fan of both women for a while now so when I was invited, I was delighted.
BYT: As a woman in bluegrass, do you think tours like this are important?
SW: I wouldn’t call myself a woman in bluegrass. I haven’t really been a part of the world for a while. It’s just been a big influence on who I am today. With this tour, we don’t have a collective album and haven’t worked together before. So being three female singer-songwriters is a cause that unites us.
BYT: We don’t have much time left, but I wanted to ask who are you listening to now? Who is getting you excited about music?
SW: That’s a great question actually. I have a bunch of friends putting out records this year, that’s been really cool. Lucius has a great poppy record coming out this year, produced by Shawn Everett. 2016 is going to be a great year for music.
Sara Watkins is playing with Patty Griffin and Anaïs Mitchell on March 1 at The Music Center at Strathmore.