Album Review: Sara Watkins – Sara Watkins
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.
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