With a Paddle

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

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."

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.  

The last two cuts probably would have sounded great on country radio, but listeners never had the chance to find out. "We didn't get any airplay to speak of," Thile confirms. "Those guys don't have the time of day for us, because we didn't make the songs to make money. They didn't really fit the form, and we didn't install the digitally enhanced twang they think is necessary.

"Country-music programming is as bad or worse than Top 40 when it comes to how much money needs to be made to keep it going," he maintains. "It's Starbucks, man. It's McDonald's. That's the kind of food you're getting from those stations."

Fortunately for the performers, Country Music Television stepped into the radio vacuum, providing significant play for clips featuring the telegenic trio. As a result, Nickel Creek found an audience, moving more than 800,000 units to date. The size of these numbers, which are huge by bluegrass standards, only increased the pressure on the threesome prior to the release of This Side. But with the help of producer Krauss, they did themselves proud. On the album, Sean's songwriting, exemplified by the gentle "Speak" and the confessional title cut, is both deeper and more accessible than his previous efforts -- a difficult trick to pull off. And if Thile's powers as a wordsmith aren't always on par with his talent as a mandolinist, he takes significant strides in the right direction. His peak moment comes on "Brand New Sidewalk," which somehow manages to extract romance from the image of a hand pressing into wet cement.

Regardless, some naysayers scented a sellout, and as evidence they cited the choice of "Spit on a Stranger," a mildly eccentric, overtly catchy cover of a tune by the indie-rock combo Pavement, as a lead single. Thile thinks such accusations of commercial calculation are absurd. "We probably already had a bigger audience than Pavement had at that point -- and that's not saying much," he points out, laughing. "But I love Pavement. I think Stephen Malkmus is brilliant, and I feel the same way about Nigel Godrich, who produced that record, Terror Twilight, plus a lot of Radiohead albums and so many other great things.

"We have no designs except musical ones," he says. "We don't pretend to know how to make what we do more palatable to a gigantic amount of people. Not that if a gigantic amount of people wanted to listen, we'd be bummed out. We'd love it. But we don't know how to control people's ears -- and the proven ways that work aren't anything we want to incorporate."

As it turns out, fate lent Nickel Creek a hand. Knowing that a Pavement cut wasn't going to thrill country programmers, Sugar Hill serviced "Stranger" to stations specializing in the Triple-A (Adult Album Alternative) format. The track's failure to catch on could have doomed This Side, but according to Thile, Boulder's KBCO started spinning another offering: "Smoothie Song," the CD's sole instrumental.

At first, Thile was taken aback by this move. "That's an instrumental. Don't they know that?" he remembers wondering. "Did somebody add lyrics?" Nonetheless, so many other stations followed KBCO's lead that "Smoothie Song" eventually hit number one on the Triple-A charts -- a first for Nickel Creek and Sugar Hill.

Stories like these are increasingly rare, given today's rigidly controlled radio environment, something that Thile understands. "We've met programmers from country-radio stations and Top 40 radio stations who want desperately to have control over what they play, but they don't," he says. "Clear Channel does." Upon being informed that Clear Channel owns KBCO, he mutters, "Unbelievable. I guess Clear Channel realizes that even if you're a gigantic corporation, you'd better be careful not to mess around with Boulder."

With even Clear Channel on board, Nickel Creek's profile is on the rise, as is Thile's. He's getting recognized in public more often these days, and, he admits, "I eat it up with a spoon. Anytime someone comes up to you in an airport or somewhere, it's two or three times more enjoyable, since it's not a situation where you expect to be recognized. I wish everybody got to experience that once or twice. It gives you this incredible chance to make someone's day better just by not being an asshole to them."  

Industry acceptance has followed as well. This Side won a Grammy Award as best contemporary folk album, and Nickel Creek has also earned numerous nominations from the Country Music Association and a prize as instrumental group of the year from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Thile feels this last honor demonstrates that most bluegrass insiders are willing to embrace the future.

"Bluegrass may have a higher percentage of musical racists than I've observed in other kinds of music, but it's still not very high," he says. "I doubt it's higher than twenty percent. The problem is, they're an incredibly loud minority, and they've probably killed bluegrass for the past fifty years. They go around saying, 'Our music is dying! Our music is dying!,' like they get some sort of sick pleasure out of it. And then when someone like Alison Krauss comes along, they're like, 'That's not bluegrass! What are those -- drums? Ach! Piano? Ach!'

"We want to distance ourselves from that attitude, but not from the music," he goes on. "We want to be the best musicians we can be, individually and as a group, and we want to keep exploring -- looking for the things we haven't uncovered yet, brushing them off, and figuring out what they are. I believe there are still things that are new out there. And I want to keep looking for them."

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