Album Review: Sara Watkins – Sara Watkins

Juli Thanki | April 20th, 2009

Sara Watkins - Album Review At 27 years old, Sara Watkins has more experience under her belt than some artists twice her age. She’s been playing the fiddle since she was a zygote, releasing her first album (with older brother Sean and Chris Thile as newgrass trio Nickel Creek) at the tender age of 8. The band hit the big time when Alison Krauss produced their self-titled major label debut in 2000.

Though Watkins did take the vocal lead on several Nickel Creek tracks throughout their 18 years together, it wasn’t until 2005’s Why Should the Fire Die? that she began to write lyrics in earnest, starting with the critically acclaimed ukulele tune “Anthony.”

Nickel Creek is currently taking an open-ended hiatus, leaving its members free to do separate projects. Chris Thile collaborated with Edgar Meyer and started progressive string band Punch Brothers, and Sean Watkins has formed Fiction Family with Switchfoot singer Jon Forman. Sara, meanwhile, seemed to disappear from the music business entirely while the other Creekers flourished. Two years later, she’s returned with a self-titled solo album that’s well worth the wait.

Watkins clearly has several eclectic musical influences, all of which are evident on a record which boasts an irresistible blend of classic country, jazz, pop, gospel and the occasional burst of blues. It’s hard to think of a person who wouldn’t be drawn to at least one song on Sara Watkins. Oh wait, here’s one: Your average radio program director–it’s not the type of music that would get played on non-college radio. Then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Eight of the album’s 14 tracks, including two instrumentals, were penned by Watkins; the rest are covers from artists as diverse as Tom Waits, John Hartford, and Jon Brion. Guest stars include Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, and Ronnie McCoury–as well as both of her bandmates–making the music and vocals on this album absolute ear candy. Producer John Paul Jones (following fellow Zeppelin member Robert Plant into country music, it seems) gives the record an intimate warmth that makes even a sterile mp3 sound almost like vinyl. There’s not a bad song to be found on Sara Watkins, but a few stand out for their excellence.

Her cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time” brings the singing brakeman into the 21st century; even as Watkins maintains ties to the original, her fiddle cleverly imitating Rodgers’ yodel before she launches into the lyrics, pleading her roaming lover to come home “any old time.” Another must-listen is the sweetly sung “Will We Go,” which is proof positive that, for someone who hasn’t been songwriting for very long, Watkins is pretty dang good at it. Perhaps there’s a bit of the autobiographical here as the newly married woman sings “If I’m not your only/You just tell me truly/’Cause I’ve gathered all my bridges/Struck a match/And they’re ready to burn.”

Watkins’ vocal here is stunning in its vulnerability, meshing seamlessly with the uncomplicated guitar and fiddle arrangement. Although we’ve heard some great singing on her Nickel Creek material, here it seems as though she’s finally found her own voice.

It’s nice to see Watkins shine as a solo artist; though she was an integral part of Nickel Creek, it seemed like she was always in the background, content to let Chris Thile do most of the band’s creative heavy lifting. The trio has gone its separate ways for the time being, but if Sara Watkins is representative of the work she can do solo, then I hope the band never gets back together.

4 Stars

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  2. [...] For more post-Nickel Creek goodness, check out Sean’s sister Sarah Watkins. [...]
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    May 9, 2009
    [...] For more post-Nickel Creek goodness, check out Sean’s sister Sarah Watkins. [...]
  1. Leeann
    April 20, 2009 at 11:01 am

    “It’s nice to see Watkins shine as a solo artist; though she was an integral part of Nickel Creek, it seemed like she was always in the background, content to let Chris Thile do most of the band’s creative heavy lifting. The trio has gone its separate ways for the time being, but if Sara Watkins is representative of the work she can do solo, then I hope the band never gets back together.”

    Whoa, Juli, I dunno…I want Nickel Creek back someday:)

    In all seriousness though, awesome review. I love this album and it’s so cool to hear Watkin’s talent emerge so nicely and strongly as a solo artist. As I’ve said before, I think this project is the strongest of all of Nickel Creek members solo projects. I had no idea thatI’ve always liked her, but never expected such greatness from her on her own, as Chris Thile gets so much of the admiration. I guess NC was just holding her back.:)

  2. Leeann
    April 20, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Strike “I had no idea” from my previous comment. Bad editing on my part.

  3. stewman
    April 20, 2009 at 11:36 am

    I think it is slightly cynical to say that “John Paul Jones is following Robert Plant into the country genre”. This isnt Jewel or Jessica Simpson trying to capitalize on a flavor of the month. JPJ is a legendary musician and producer who at this age (per a radio interview with Matt Pinfield last week) is following his muse and has been performing with the Watkins siblings for several years. While I havent heard the record yet, it sounds like he did a great job.

  4. Kelly
    April 20, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    I might be wrong, but I think JPJ has done some work with various bluegrass/rootsy acts in recent years (Unlce Earl, I think), maybe before Plant hooked up with Krauss?? I could be wrong and just need to stop drinking so heavily during daylight hours too…

  5. Juli
    April 20, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    He did do a great job; he’s an excellent producer (the Uncle Earl album he did was awesome too).

    And you are correct that he’s been doing the country stuff for some time (here’s an awesome clip of him playing with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings a few years ago, so perhaps it was a bit flippant for me to say he’s “following” the success of Robert Plant.

    But I personally like him best when he’s rocking out; same with Plant. Though if they’d want to expand on the folky stuff from Led Zeppelin III and cut a country record together, I sure wouldn’t complain. Perhaps I’m just bitter that LZ broke up before I was born…

  6. CMW
    April 20, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    This is a great record with some really inspired vocal performances from Watkins, and of course the musicianship is solid. I can see it being a contender on some of the year-end Top Ten lists.

    Nice review, Juli.

  7. Marc
    April 20, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Still disappointed that her duet with Alex Woodward, “Reno” wasn’t also on this CD. Otherwise a fantastic listen.

  8. Rick
    April 20, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    This is the kind of album where I’m envious of you reviewers getting all these albums for free. This one sounds really interesting, and I’d love to listen through it, but I wouldn’t pay for the privilege. Dang…

  9. Leeann
    April 20, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Why not? You seem to dismiss her quite easily.

  10. Rick
    April 20, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Leeann, I’m not dismissing Sarah’s music, I’m just broke…

  11. Matt B
    April 20, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    LOL, and here I thought Rick would comment on not getting to hear another of his beloved ‘gal’s.’

  12. Chris D.
    April 20, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Rick, I didn’t get it for free, I bought it myself. xD

    Anyway, I love this album, and I found myself agreeing with your last paragraph, Juli. Sara was always my favorite part of Nickel Creek, though Thile is great too.

  13. Rick
    April 20, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Matt, I think its about time for Roughstock to feature a multiple copy Sara Watkins give-away contest! (lol)

    (PS – Roughtstock favorite Becky Schlegel gave birth to her third son recently. Just thought I’d mention that since Country Standard Time has a nice article.)

  14. Ken- ThatNashvilleSound
    April 20, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    Could it be that a bluegrass-country album full of songs fit for the back porch of a small town general store could both harken back to another era and be more relevant and stylish because of it? The album is filled with rich instrumentalization and a guest list of major bluegrass players. It’s diverse in style, covering classic country, modern country, bluegrass, folk and Americana without boundaries. Whether it’s the sparse orchestrations without ever feeling empty on “All This Time”, the surprise falsetto and rocking drum tempo on “Long Hot Summer Days”, the haunting dobro on “My Friend”, Watkins master fiddle-playing on “Frieiderick”, this album has a surprise on nearly every song. She channels her inner Jeannie Seely and Jean Shepard playing the classic country tune “Any Old Time” and has a modern day western campfire song on my favorite tune, “Pony.” Outside of National Public Radio, this is an album today’s country music radio will largely ignore. It’s a shame- like those back porch general store jams, it’s a loss of a musical realness & richness for the masses.

  15. solongsowrong
    April 20, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    John Paul Jones has been doing Americana music for a number of years now, and is a regular fixture at some of the major festivals, jamming with many of the greats in Bluegrass music. As with Plant, his music has long since expanded beyond the LZ days.

    Although I found nothing on this album that makes it stand out, it was still a very enjoyable listen, and I think all involved have done a very nice job with it. The versatility of Sara’s music is quite remarkable, and I look forward to whatever this young lady brings us as she continues her musical journey. She has come a long way since her professional debut at age eight.

  16. Brady Vercher
    April 20, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Sorry to be contrary, but it really took me awhile to get into this one and although I’ve warmed up to it a bit, I still don’t find it to be totally entertaining and think Watkins needs to enunciate a little more on a couple of the slower songs. I’m a sucker for Western influences, so I like “Pony” and “Any Old Time,” although her voice sounds almost too fragile to inject much more attitude than what’s present on the latter. The instrumentals are great. I like the album, recognize its quality, and there are some beautiful performances, but I don’t know if it’s entertaining enough for me to come back to very often. I also think she might have been able to do a little more with 14 songs. Probably a 3.5 from me.

    I wonder what the people who got after John Rich for New York City town think about “Nashville town” in the Norman Blake penned “Lord Won’t You Help Me.”

  17. Josh
    April 28, 2009 at 8:49 am

    I am definitely gonna get this album as soon as I get my next pay check. :P I know she, along with the NC trio, are awesome musicians. She definitely shines on her first effort. However, I also think that NC could get back together at some point in the future. They all had worked together tirelessly throughout their younger lives, so a hiatus is understandable.

  18. Ben Milam
    May 4, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    i have always had an obsession, i mean interest in sara watkins. and a guilty pleasure for what many of my friends (music snobs) call wuss-grass. i think she’s great and is talented to the point where i think she can play just about any style and make it her own. those kinds of musicians are rare. i love wuss-grass. there i said it.

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