Sara Watkins has always been a performer who’s very willing to share the spotlight. In her early years with Nickel Creek her violin virtuosity often took a backseat to Chris Thile‘s mandolin and her brother Sean‘s guitar. The Watkins Family Hour, both as a live showcase and on record, finds her and Sean joined by a whole host of fellow musicians, jamming on a wide variety of material. Meanwhile, Watkins‘ previous solo albums have found her exploring a lot of folk, country, and pop sounds but bringing her voice to the fore.
It wasn’t until the 2010’s that she really started to assert herself as a vocalist and songwriter. There are moments on Nickel Creek’s 2014 album A Dotted Line where she forcefully takes the lead, and in her newer group I’m With Her, she always feels like a full partner and contributor. So it was interesting to go into Under the Pepper Tree, her first solo record in five years, with that assertiveness in mind. And then to discover that this is a covers album largely intended as lullabies for small children.
So yes, with Under the Pepper Tree, quiet Watkins makes her full return. But her vocal chops are on full display despite the subdued nature of the record. The musical arrangements here tend towards the sparse, often with just one or two instruments supporting the vocals. It puts the focus squarely on the melodies here and her performance. These songs also tend to be short, with only three of the 15 tracks lasting more than three minutes.
She opens with a big swing, taking on “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Tremolo violin, rolling piano, and twinkling bells recreate the song’s basic feel, while Watkins sings with confidence. It’s a strong performance, and interestingly, she makes it slide right into “Second Star From the Right” from Disney’s Peter Pan. Watkins changes the song into a folky ballad with soft acoustic guitar, ditching the 1950s-era stacked vocal harmonies. The rest of the first half of the album continues in this vein, transitioning from one song to the next seamlessly. After a side break for vinyl listeners, the back half of the record operates in the same fashion.
The guest stars are kept to a minimum here, but both of Watkins’ bands show up for a track apiece. Sean Watkins and Chris Thile add harmonies, guitar, and mandolin for “Blue Shadows on the Trail”, from Roy Rogers in the late 1940s, hearkening back to the band’s teenage years covering cowboy songs. I’m With Her’s Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan are here for another classic cowboy song, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, adding beautiful harmonies as well as slightly more robust instrumentation. Watkins’ young daughter is featured on “Edelweiss”, joining in here and there on the vocals, and it’s pretty adorable.
The balance of the album is a quick and easy listen, and it’s very calming. I’m not sure if anyone needs another version of “When You Wish Upon a Star”, but if so, Watkins has a take here. She’s a little more successful with slightly less familiar songs. “La La Lu”, a literal lullaby from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, is given an enthusiastic, sprightly rendition. Her version of Harry Nilsson’s “Blanket for a Sail” may be the album’s liveliest song. It has jaunty violin accents, fun harmonies from Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and the only appearance of drums on the record.
The album also includes a pair of originals. The title track, “Under the Pepper Tree”, is a 70-second solo violin instrumental with a bluegrassy feel. “Night Singing” is a lovely acoustic guitar song with a plaintive vocal melody that manages to feel like a warm blanket. The record finishes out with another actual lullaby, The Beatles’ “Good Night”, originally written by John Lennon for his son, Julian. Watkins replaces the orchestral accompaniment of the original with restrained piano playing. She even whispers, “Good night, everyone”, during the song’s outro. Hopefully, any children listening to the album at bedtime will actually be lulled to sleep; it’s certainly a pleasant way to finish out the set.
Under the Pepper Tree ultimately succeeds in its aim of presenting relaxed, child-friendly songs. Anyone looking for a very chilled-out, folk song-style experience may find a lot to like. Adults who grew up with midcentury Disney movies will find plenty of nostalgic, half-remembered songs tickling their brains here. For parents with very young children, maybe five and under, this album could be a winner. Older kids are probably already aging out of this music. So the appeal of this album seems limited. It’s the kind of project that seems borne out of this specific moment, where a touring musician unexpectedly is spending an inordinate amount of time at home due to the pandemic and decides to do something geared towards that experience. For most fans of Watkins, Under the Pepper Tree will probably end up as more of a curiosity than a regular go-to record.