With a Paddle

Nickel Creek's Chris Thile spanks country radio and bluegrass nazis. Consider it tough love.

It's no wonder that roots-music traditionalists don't quite know how to take Chris Thile.

Still in his early twenties, Thile is a mandolin maestro fully capable of limning acoustic classics note for note -- yet he wants his group, Nickel Creek, to be known for more than gifted mimicry. Over the course of two brisk-selling discs on the Sugar Hill imprint (2000's Nickel Creek and last year's This Side), he and sibling bandmates Sean and Sara Watkins have proven that bluegrass isn't just for grandparents anymore. Along the way, Thile's earned a reputation for frankness that's definitely deserved.

"In bluegrass, you have these bluegrass nazis who think there's bluegrass and then there's bad music. What is that? What is that?" he asks, his reedy voice rising with his passion. "It's so closed-minded, it's funny. I mean, how could you live your life listening to only one kind of music? Thinking that it's the true form of musical art, and all the others are just sort of painfully stabbing around in the dark?" He offers a grunt of exasperation before declaring, "I have no time for that."

Still waters run deep: Sean Watkins (from left), Sara 
Watkins and Chris Thile are Nickel Creek.
John Chiasson
Still waters run deep: Sean Watkins (from left), Sara Watkins and Chris Thile are Nickel Creek.

The fervor of Thile's comments imply that he's an angry young picker eager to pillory the purists and knock the Americana genre off its creaky foundation. In truth, he's an exuberant force of nature with a robust sense of humor, an infectious laugh and few discernible anarchic tendencies. For instance, he notes, "We love traditional bluegrass, and we feel a major connection to it. The music is so powerful, and it has so much to offer; it's completely unique, extraordinarily unique." His affection for the form comes through strongly on the Nickel Creek platters and Thile's assorted side projects, the most recent of which is Into the Cauldron, a vibrant session that pairs him with fellow mandolin wiz Mike Marshall.

At the same time, Thile hates having limits placed on him. Drawing from influences as varied as pop, rock, classical and world music is something he likes doing, and he sees no reason to feel guilty about it. "If you're a good musician, you're not shutting yourself off from things," he stresses. "There are musicians of dubious quality who might, but that's probably why they're of dubious quality."

Despite his fairly recent vintage, Thile is a music veteran; he started strumming assorted stringed instruments as a child growing up in the San Diego area, and he has hardly stopped since. Nickel Creek's origins date back to that period, too. At age eight, Thile went with his family to an eatery called (really) That Pizza Place, which sponsored a weekly bluegrass night. There he met fellow music enthusiasts Sara, also eight, and Sean, twelve, and before long, the kids decided to team up under the supervision of Chris's dad, Scott Thile, who plays bass. Chris developed more quickly than Nickel Creek did, with Sugar Hill putting out his first album, 1994's Leading Off..., when he was a cherub-cheeked thirteen-year-old baseball enthusiast. (His second platter, the highly acclaimed Stealing Second, arrived in 1997, followed by 2001's Not All Who Wander are Lost.) Nickel Creek kept plugging away, however, winning a sizable following on the bluegrass circuit prior to making its own recording debut.

This background suggests a kinship with the Jackson 5, another family band overseen by a musically ambitious father, but Thile is certain that Michael and company's tale was infinitely more dramatic. For one thing, Scott couldn't compare with Jackson patriarch Joe, a relentless taskmaster who drilled his children until they were a lean, mean entertainment machine. "We hit it pretty hard," Chris concedes, "but we were just as hard, if not harder, on ourselves than our parents were. Whatever our energy level was, they matched it, which was perfect." Moreover, the levels of fame achieved by the nascent combos were hardly equivalent: "I'd show up at a festival, and most of the people there would know who I was, and I'd get to sign autographs and have a great time. Then I'd leave and...nothing. To select people, I was a star, but to most of the world, it was more like, 'Who the heck is that guy?'

"Our Behind the Music would be the most boring freakin' episode ever," he adds. "None of us do any drugs or go around having affairs and crap -- and there's certainly no inter-romantic struggles or anything like that. It'd be incredibly dull, because we really just worked on our music. The first couple of years, we worked on bad music, but I'm sure it served a purpose. We were horrible, but we always strived to suck a little less every day."

By the time Nickel Creek hit stores, they didn't suck at all. Chris's virtuosity on the mandolin had been long established at that point, but he was ably supplemented by Sara, a skilled violinist and vocalist, and Sean, a guitarist and singer with plenty to say himself. (He has since put out a pair of well-received solo offerings, 2001's Let it Fall and this year's 26 Miles.) Produced by progressive-bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, the CD intersperses jaunty, lyric-free affairs such as "Ode to a Butterfly" and the Lord of the Rings nod "In the House of Tom Bombadil" with the likes of "Reasons Why," a lovely showcase for Sara's singing, and the emotionally rich "When You Come Back Down," co-written by Denver-scene graduate Tim O'Brien.

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