You don’t have to live in Texas or Tennessee to feel the country blues. You can live anywhere: in Southern Ontario, as Willie P. Bennett and Fred Eaglesmith have shown, or even in L.A., just like Gillian Welch does. It’s a bit more difficult, maybe. You can’t exactly drive your beat-up ‘77 Ford three-quarter ton truck to a honky-tonk like the one pictured on the cover of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (actually, you can almost do this is Southern Ontario, but the vegetation is all wrong.) Remember a few years back when Welch received some strange criticism from music critics about not being from the South, even though she sounded as if she was? As far as I know, she’s not an orphan girl or a heroin addict either, but I don’t see why she can’t tell stories from these perspectives. One would have thought that the cult of authenticity would have been torn asunder when a Cornell college-boy turned into Taj Mahal over a quarter-of-a-century ago. No one should presume to have a monopoly on country music or the blues.
Or bluegrass, for that matter. Nickel Creek is quartet from that smoking hot-bed of bluegrass music called San Diego. I remember driving through San Diego a few years back. All I could see, from one horizon to another, were jug bands on every corner, mandolin and banjo-strumming buskers turning the heat up on their instruments just enough to coax a corn whiskey’s worth of change out of passing pedestrians… okay, it wasn’t like that at all. Nobody looked anything like the musicians that congregate every summer at the Black Mountain Festival in North Carolina just for the joy of playing, improvising and revisiting the songs of those classic hillbilly crooners. But don’t look askance at Nickel Creek for eschewing Tex-Mex or dirty SoCal punk rock and picking up bluegrass in the San Diego suburbs. There’s nothing wrong with them, really.
The still youthful members of the band—Sara and Sean Watkins, Chris Thile and his dad, Scott Thile (he’s the one exception)—spent their teenage years collecting fiddle, guitar and mandolin championships at state and national competitions. Given their age and their obvious proficiency on their respective instruments, you’d expect them to get stuck in the trap of simply cranking out some bluegrass pyrotechnics. One of the remarkable things about their debut album, Nickel Creek, is just how restrained it is in this respect. Nickel Creek doesn’t go for the jugular but for the soul (corny, I know). The band members aim to create something gentle and melodic—more Alison Krauss than Bill Monroe—and they pull it off without making it sound too wishy-washy and soulless. It’s true that some of the tracks are too earnestly folky and that the production has an unfortunate tendency to flatten things into single sonic plane that removes the urgency and rawness of the strings. This is a real problem since a number of the tracks are instrumental and, well, this is bluegrass: if ya can’t get into the strings, what have got? Luckily, whenever Sara, Scott and Sean burst out in song, it can’t help but bring a smile to your face. Sara Watkins has an exceptional voice that sounds very similar to Krauss’s—a little thin but heartbreakingly poignant. Chris’s voice is just an affecting, but it’s the trio harmonies that really standout. From the third track (“Out of the Woods) onward, Nickel Creek play one light, evocative bluegrass song after another. If it’s not exactly “high lonesome,” its always “slow wistful,” which sometimes is just the right thing.