Sara Watkins: “Sara Watkins”
There was a time, however brief, when critics and casual fans of Nickel Creek thought that Chris Thile– the closest thing the group had to a true leader– was the mastermind behind the band’s more progressive tendencies– their flirtations with pop and rock, and the oddball cover selections that always popped up in concert; his two companions, Sean and Sara Watkins, were “merely” virtuosic musicians. The faithful always knew better, and those of us still paying attention are finding the disbanded trio’s now-divergent careers to be quietly revelatory; if the fine but flawed solo and side projects from Thile and the Watkins siblings have tarnished the idea of Nickel Creek as an unstoppable group of musical synthesists, it’s also trashed the notion that Thile was the only forward-thinker in the group. Though he continues to hurdle into increasingly esoteric territory, as with his dense and daunting fusion of bluegrass and classical music with the Punch Brothers, the Watkins brother and sister are ably proving themselves to have musical imaginations just as big (and much more accessible) as Thile’s; just a few months back, Sean appeared as one half of the duo Fiction Family, along with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, proving himself to possess both a collaborative spirit and interests in pop, rock, and coffeehouse folk idioms.
And sister Sara? Her first album, Sara Watkins, does exactly what any self-titled debut album should: It establishes who she is and what she cares about, and offers promising hints of what she can do. And, as you might imagine by now, it’s an album steeped in bluegrass, but hardly limited to it; Watkins reveals herself to be a bit more complex than merely a bluegrass fiddler. She is very much a singer-songwriter, and her debut as a solo performer reveals that her personality and music are as much shaped by the LA singer-songwriter scene as by the sounds of Nashville or Appalachia.
That diverse pedigree manifests itself in different ways, of course, but the most obvious is in her song selection. Watkins stomps through a thick, muggy bluegrass tune with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days”) and contributes a few of her own instrumental workouts for fiddle, guitar and mandolin. There’s country and gospel, as well, but just as notable are the LA tracks; she covers Jon Brion’s “Same Mistakes”– a ballad with nothing bluegrass about it, though Greg Leisz’ peddle steel makes it fit right in– and she goes to the feet of the godfather himself, Tom Waits, for a cover of Mule Variations‘ “Pony.” The record’s most indelible moments are the originals on which Watkins weds her twin instincts– as on the longing opener, “All This Time,” which blends bluegrass instrumentation and country twang with the LA scene’s lyrical idiosyncrasies and genteel mannerisms, suggesting even better, more integrative music to come down the road.
But you can hear the differing (and at times, competing) influences in more than just the song selection; there’s also her choice of colalbroators, particularly producer John Paul Jones. If his presence makes you think Watkins is trying to bring a classic rock edge to her music, you’d be mistaken– Jones proves to be just as adept at rootsy singer-songwriter fare as his bandmate Robert Plant has turned out to be– but his hand on the wheel does indicate that while Watkins loves traditional bluegrass music, she’s not interested in being a complete traditionalist. And if her abiding interest in singer-songwriter tropes ocassionally leads to some overly slick, polite ballads– as on “My Friend,” which could really use an extra bluegrass zip– she and Jones also find ways to play with formula and come up with something really fascinating, as on the sinister, spooky lament “Bygones” and the breezy, playful pop number “Too Much,” where Jon Brion himself shows up for some rockist axe-shredding even as Watkins provides a rootsy fiddle breakdown.
It’s moments like that– when the different parts of Watkins’ musical make-up really gel and form something whole, and wholly personal and unique– that the record takes off and becomes not just a solid roots music exercise, but also a fine, spirited album from a creative and very talented singer/songwriter who is only now coming into her own. And it’s that promise that sustains this album and makes it exciting even on the less interesting or half-realized numbers– it all points forward toward a bright future, whether her band ever reuintes or not.