A music review: Sara Watkins first post Nickel Creek album, ‘Sara Watkins’

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Wow. It’s a RexBlog post about music. But I couldn’t help myself.

Longtime readers know I used to post occasional items about music — but they and I quickly discovered it was not my calling so my music-related items got diverted to my cobweb-collecting tumblr account, RexHammock.com. My exception to the RexBlog no-music practice became the group, Nickel Creek, who I wrote about until their final performance (for now).

Since this is, some-what, a followup to that Nickel Creek item, I decided to post it here.

Yesterday (Tuesday, April 7) was the official release date of Sara Watkins’ first post Nickel Creek album, self-titled Sara Watkins (there are links to it multiple places at the bottom of this post). After listening to it last night, I’m happy to report the recording is going to please Nickel Creek fans — as well as please those who wanted to hear what Sara could do on her own. (Although “her own” includes an all-star collection of bluegrass, alt-country and rock greats.)

First off, it’s hard not to compare Sara with Alison Krauss. They both have angelic bluegrass-pure soprano voices. And both have had fiddles and resined bows in their hands since early childhood. Krauss produced Nickel Creek’s first two albums. And the Krauss-connection gets even more intertwined as John Paul Jones, a former Led Zeppelin-mate of Krauss-collaborator Robert Plant, is the producer of Sara’s album.

But in this album, Watkins clearly steps out on her own while still evoking Krauss-like artistry and Nickel Creek freshness. And, to be honest, I heard more Emmylou and Gillian Welch than Alison channeling through Sara in this recording.

This recording is very different from the post-Nickel Creek recordings of Chris Thile (my review of one of his post Nickel Creek projects, the Punch Brothers Band’s first album is on RexHammock.com). His recent recordings have taken him up the paths of experimental and non-traditional. His oversized talent and virtuosity on the mandolin make it easy to understand and support why he should take his instrument to places it has never ventured. So I applaud his journey and try to keep up, but at times it’s over my head. (Note: Thile does play on several cuts of Sara’s album and receives arranger credits on one of the songs. He does not sing, even in backup harmonies, however.)

Unlike Thile’s post NC work, Sara’s album has me right there with her, every note. It’s at times playful. At times traditional and pure. At times, touching. But at all times, you know she is special.

In Nickel Creek fashion, there is much about the album that will appeal to both bluegrass purists and new-grass fans. But don’t worry. It will still feel easy on the ears of those who never thought they’d be a fan of anything with a twang — like the fans who discovered Nickel Creek on CMT or VH1 or during the groups’ years touring college campuses.

It includes a couple of traditional-sounding instrumentals, both composed by Sara. One is a bluegrass tune called Jefferson and is performed by 2/3rds of Nickel Creek (or 3/4ths if you count bassist Mark Schatz). Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins, Sara’s brother, plays guitar and Ronnie McCoury (son of Del) plays mandolin. The other instrumental, Fredrick, is a rollicking reel displaying plenty of influences from the past 20 years of “newgrass.”

And then there is a song I predict will reach “standard” status in bluegrass gospel circles, and perhaps crossover into other genres, a hymn written by Sara called Give Me Jesus. If the writing credits weren’t listed on the downloaded liner notes, I would have guessed it was written 150 years ago in eastern Tennessee. I have no doubt that in 150 year hence, it will still be sung in small country churches and on the stage of the Ryman.

If you are an alt-country or Nickel Creek fan or you like the type of non-commercial country, folk, acoustical, blues music that is now collectively being described as Americana, then I have not doubt you’ll love this album.

Below you can find relevant links.

Links:

Official Sara Watkins site.
Sara Watkins album via Amazon MP3 Downloads, $8.99
Sara Watkins album via iTunes, $9.99
Tour Dates
Sara’s MySpace page (w/ some of the mentioned songs available via streaming)
Sara Watkins on Wikipedia.

  • Tony Silber

    Rex–I took your recommendation on the Jayhawks’ “Tampa to Tulsa.” I like that song and a lot of their music. I like Iris DeMent. I like Steve Earle and the Flatlanders. Not sure about Son Volt or Uncle Tupelo. Who else should I check out?

  • Holy cow! Rex you have made my whole day. John Paul Jones produced this?! I can’t wait to hear it.

  • Dylan Stableford

    You’re like the Lester Bangs of custom publishers …