Sara Watkins: Sara Watkins

Nickel Creek's fiddler steps out on her own with her John Paul Jones-produced self-titled debut. It's a laid-back album that wisely focuses on her voice and her violin.

Sara Watkins

Sara Watkins

Contributors: John Paul Jones, Sean Watkins, Chris Thile, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawling, Tim O'Brien, Jon Brion, Benmont Tench
Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2009-04-07
UK Release Date: 2009-04-06

Nickel Creek started when its three members weren't yet teenagers and continued on for 18 years until the band went on indefinite hiatus at the end of their "Farewell for Now" tour in 2007. Apparently spending most of their adolescent and adult lives together necessitated a long break. The band's two male members, mandolin player Chris Thile and guitarist Sean Watkins, had each released multiple solo albums while Nickel Creek was active. But fiddler Sara Watkins is just now getting into the act with her self-titled solo debut. Rather than continue forward with the dark subject matter and musically complex style of Nickel Creek's excellent 2005 album Why Should the Fire Die?, Watkins has chosen to go laid-back with her disc. Sara Watkins features six covers among its 14 songs, and has a relaxed country-folk vibe running through it.

A lifetime of touring on the bluegrass circuit and beyond, plus several years of hosting an anything-goes LA club night called The Watkins Family Hour, seems to have given Sara Watkins the ability to call in a bunch of friends to play on her album. Produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, the disc features Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, both of her bandmates from Nickel Creek, and a whole bunch of Nashville session guys and bluegrass players. But since Nonesuch didn't see fit to provide me with a physical copy of the album with liner notes to reference, I've only got the music itself to go on here. So let's not worry about which guest star plays on which track and focus on Watkins herself.

The album opens with the beautifully harmonized, "All This Time", a gentle song about not being able to let go of an absent lover. A pedal steel guitar in the background quietly complements the vocals and adds just enough to emphasize the feeling of wistfulness in Watkins's voice. This is cannily followed by the stomping "Long Hot Summer Days", a John Hartford cover. Watkins's fiddle playing and vocals dominate the proceedings here, and despite the slow tempo, the song bristles with energy. Then she goes quiet again with "My Friend", another pretty song that really brings out her pure, clear singing voice.

The next song, the instrumental "Freiderick", is an upbeat instrumental that would fit right in on any of Nickel Creek's albums. Its mid-album companion piece "Jefferson" is the quickest song on the album, and the most traditional-sounding bluegrass song here, too. But that's about it for bluegrass on Sara Watkins. It seems clear that Watkins is ready to try something different from the bluegrass she grew up playing. The middle of the album is heavy on the covers, with four in a row, ranging from Jon Brion ("Same Mistakes") to Jimmie Rodgers ("Any Old Time") to Tom Waits ("Pony"). Watkins's treatment of these songs smooths out most of their edges and makes them fit with her easygoing style. Beyond some of the lyrics, you wouldn't know that they aren't her own tunes.

That stylistic unity is as much a weakness as it is a strength, though. There are differences between each song on the album, but they're subtle. A casual listen yields little reaction beyond "slow country song here, mid-tempo country song here, nice voice." Watkins is a terrific singer, and the twelve songs with vocals here showcase her voice very effectively. Musically, though, it sounds a bit bland the first few times through. It isn't until one starts to dig into the material that the charms of the songs on Sara Watkins start to reveal themselves. Besides the album-opening duo of "All This Time" and "Long Hot Summer Days" and the electrified cover of David Garza's "Too Much" near the end, nothing jumps out right away. And that's fine, because it seems to indicate that Watkins has a lot more to give. Hopefully, she will continue to grow and come into her own as a songwriter and solo artist. This is a solid debut album compiled from years of playing and absorbing music, but it feels like a warm-up for what's to come later.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.