Though Nickel Creek's sound hints at bluegrass, the young group aims to transcend the genre. 

Music of Many Colors

Nickel Creek violinist-singer Sara Watkins is just getting out of bed and has designs on a nearby California beach. But stories about a recent trip to France, a tour with Lyle Lovett, video shoots and discussion of the group's successful bluegrass-flavored CD are more than enough reasons for the 19-year-old California girl to agree to an interview and delay a date with her surfboard.

"We don't want to be confined to a bluegrass category," Watkins explains, as she describes the acoustic music she has made with 23-year-old brother, Sean, and 19-year-old Chris Thile for the past 11 years. "It will always be a base for us…But at the same time, we don't like to say we're a bluegrass band 'cause we're not."

A listen to the band's eponymous CD justifies Sara's summation, as the Nickel Creek sound is both old and new. There's the mandolin's woody clarity and the lightning guitar runs often associated with bluegrass, but the rhythmic changes and arrangements offer more. Thile's tenor is more pop than high lonesome, and the tempos can conjure visions of Ireland's shores as Sara's beautiful soprano floats gently over soft folk grooves. With bass player and Nashville session veteran Byron House in tow, the Watkins siblings and Thile bring this blend of edgy and haunting music to Plan 9 Music and The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen on Friday, Oct. 6.

Though no longer in the prodigy category, each of the young musicians was an instrumental whiz kid from the start. Sara sang and was learning violin while Chris and Sean were taking mandolin and guitar lessons from members of a local bluegrass band. As the kids improved, the band invited them to jam during its regular Saturday shows in a San Diego pizza parlor. Sara remembers when a promoter wanted a "cute kid band" for a local bluegrass festival and encouraged the threesome to form a group. Nickel Creek was born.

The young players all took a dedicated approach to their new career. While weekdays found them in school, weekends found them playing festivals in the area, and eventually in other states. Even as preteens, they were meeting all their heroes, learning the ropes and defining their sound.

"It was really great fun," Sara recalls. "It was what we wanted to do."

Eventually, they got a gig as an opener at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Bluegrass phenom Alison Krauss — once a teen-age star herself — met them backstage and raved about the band's talents. When it came CD time a short while later, Krauss agreed to produce the group. Sara says the band was "stoked."

"She really helped us with cutting out the fast frills…the crummy, cheesy stuff (and) capture a different energy that we hope lasts a whole lot longer."

Sara says each member also pursues individual musical sidebars. Thile, in particular, has two solo CDs to his credit and is currently recording with country singer-songwriter Radney Foster. But Watkins says Nickel Creek has longevity in mind, though independent musical growth is good for all.

"It's a great time for us," she says. "It helps the band when individual units are getting stronger."

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