Watkins is probably the best known of the trio’s members, due to her status as a founder and fiddler with the Grammy-award-winning and highly influential progressive bluegrass group Nickel Creek, where she debuted in 1989 along with her brother Sean and mandolinist Chris Thile. Since 2007, when the band took an indefinite hiatus (broken by 2014’s 25th reunion tour), Watkins has played both solo gigs and in a variety of groups including, of course, I’m With Her. In addition to singing and playing fiddle, she also plays ukulele and guitar, and played percussion while touring with The Decemberists. With her brother Sean, Sara has also hosted the Watkins Family Hour, which has been described as an “oasis from the rigors of the road, a laboratory where they can try out new material, or master beloved cover songs.” The monthly show is held at the Largo in Los Angeles and it has been hailed as a convivial, communal event where they welcome an impressive array of musician friends old and new.
Watkins has a wide range of musical interests. Let’s begin with something completely different — the rocker/murder ballad Hayloft from Nickel Creek’s reunion tour. With the lyrics, “My daddy’s got a gun / you better run…” you can guess the subject matter. Thile described Hayloft as like a “Gatorade shower” on the listener, and reviewers note that in the hands of Nickel Creek this oddity becomes a romp with chops.
Another rocker/ballad (if that’s a genre) is her Young in All the Wrong Ways from the 2016 solo album of the same name.
Watkins can still sing straight-ahead bluegrass, as seen in this live version of Hold Whatcha Got with the great Mark Schatz on the bass. (Well, this version is as straight ahead as the Nickel Creek folks can play it.) One of my favorite Watkins performances is her version of John Hartford‘s Long Hot Summer Day, first as a fiddle/vocal solo and then in a version with Nickel Creek. The Watkins Family Hour Tiny Desk Concert from 2015 has a surprise appearance by singer Fiona Apple, who howls a bit on In the Pines, sounding as if she just walked down from the North Georgia mountains to join in the Saturday night party.
In her response to the Chris Thile challenge to record a song from her house for the Live from Home performance series, Sara Watkins offers up a lovely Iris DeMent tune, Sweet is the Melody. No one knows when musicians and bands will begin touring again, but note that the Watkins Family Hour was to be performing at Ram’s Head on April 29th, and at Sixth & I in DC on April 30th. Both shows have been postponed, so check their websites for updates.
Until we can get out to hear some live music, enjoy the videos and stay safe!
More to come…