Oftentimes you need to escape where you grew up to really get a good lay of the land and see who you really are away from everything that you know. That's sort of what happened to Nickel Creek. The Southern California bluegrass trio had been playing together literally since they were kids. The eldest, guitarist Sean Watkins, was 16 when they self-released their first album, Little Cowpoke. His sister Sara and mandolin player Chris Thile were 12. So when they went on hiatus seven years ago, it was a well-needed break.
"If you grow up in a band like we did, after a certain point you start becoming married artistically, and it's hard to know where you end and the next person begins," says Sean. "Getting to spend time away from it, in other bands with other people, helped us focus on who we are as individual musicians. That can sometimes backfire when you come back to a band — in some ways you can be different people and it might not work — but in our case it seemed to make us better as a band."
Indeed, their comeback album, A Dotted Line, is perhaps their finest work. It's nothing you haven't heard: progressive bluegrass with big harmonies. Yet the arrangements are so seamless and performances so effortless that simple sophistication is the inspired result. It is ageless roots music that sounds unusually fresh and vibrant, particularly given the present "string-band overpopulation" situation.
Their guileless charm extends from Sara's 1970s road-ready roots rocker "Destination" to the lonely but exultant bluegrass/pop ballad "Christmas Eve" and the breathless, pedal-mashing "You Don't Know What's Going On." It's all very catchy, keenly crafted and, for lack of a better word, fun.
"I think that in the past we've had agendas together and separately, and this time around we didn't. We just wanted to have fun making music together again, and we wanted the songs to dictate what they are," Sean says. "We're not trying to do anything more than what's appropriate for the songs and that just comes across as being much simpler than things we've done in the past.
"We thought, let's try to make the most of this band and focus on our strengths and not try to do things that other people can do better. And one thing we decided to focus on was three-part harmony," Sean continues. "In the past we've veered away from things like three-part harmony."
One of the album's most extraordinary tracks is a cover of Canadian indie rock band Mother Mother's "Hayloft." The spunky, wiry little track has the odd, rhythmic insistence of a Talking Heads tune crossed with a pert melody worthy of the Go-Go's or maybe early '90s Juliana Hatfield. It came courtesy of Thile's little brother who played the band for him one Christmas holiday.
"There was this one song that was really proggy and Chris was like, 'Wait a second.' He had this song for a while, and I think he was maybe going to show it to the Punch Brothers, or maybe they didn't like it, but it seemed to work with us," says Sean. "It's just such a strange song, it seems so unlikely, but somehow it works."
Nickel Creek formed in 1989, and the trio performed at bluegrass festivals across the country throughout the '90s. The three were homeschooled to accommodate their busy tour schedule. In 1997, they self-released their second album, Here to There, and then signed to Sugar Hill records for their 2000 platinum-selling self-titled major label debut. However, their biggest break wasn't signing to a label but getting Alison Krauss to produce the album.
"We kind of lucked out because the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack was selling a lot of copies," he says. "She was on it and associated with us because she produced our record. So we got lumped in with all of it, and it was really good for us. It also kind of started turning people's ears to acoustic instruments."
Their 2002 follow-up This Side won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but by the time of 2005's more heavily produced Why Should the Fire Die?, the question seemed more than just an album title.
Each of them needed to forge their own paths for a while. Sara released a couple solo albums. Sean started the bands Fiction Family and Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.), as well as recording a yet-to-be-released solo album. Meanwhile, Thile convened the critically acclaimed progressive string quintet Punch Brothers and garnered a MacArthur Genius award in 2012.
As the 25th anniversary of their formation approached, the trio began talking about reuniting and things just grew from there. "We thought maybe we'd do 25 shows and then we thought we should have an EP to sell. So we got together last June in New York and had more material than we needed for an EP," says Sean. "We were just like, let's make a real record, and after that we decided to do a couple proper tours. It all happened very quickly and naturally."
The intervening time not only enriched their musical horizons but brought a measure of maturity, according to the 37-year-old Sean. "Once you get into your 30s you really start to become comfortable with yourself," he says. "So I think we're all in a similar place, and hopefully that's reflected in the record."
Sean is as thankful for the culture's rootsy turn, though he's as perplexed as anyone why it suddenly reemerged with such vengeance. He thinks it has something to do with the timeless quality of the instrumentation.
"It's something very tangible, and if you pick up an acoustic instrument and you start playing it in a room, it's so simple, and it doesn't need much. It just connects with people," he says. "I don't know. It's just easy to connect with people when you have an acoustic instrument."