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Music / Nickel Creek

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Sara, Chris & Sean

Nickel Creek is an American progressive acoustic music trio consisting of Christopher Scott "Chris" Thile (born February 20, 1981; vocals, mandolin) and siblings Sara Ullrika Watkins (born June 8, 1981; vocals, fiddle) and Sean Charles Watkins (born February 18, 1977; guitar, vocals), with Chris' father Scott playing bass on their first albums. They were active from 1989–2007, and reunited in 2014. They began as a fairly typical bluegrass group, but by the time of their second major label release This Side, had branched out in a big way, forging a musical style that Chris dubbed "progressive folk".

The band has recorded six albums:

  • Little Cowpoke (1993)
  • Here to There (1997)
  • Nickel Creek (2000)
  • This Side (2002)
  • Why Should the Fire Die? (2005)
  • A Dotted Line (2014)
  • Celebrants (2023)

To say nothing of each members' solo albums and various side projects. They disbanded in 2007 for "an indefinite period of time", so each could focus on a solo career. They reformed in 2013, announcing a new album and tour dates for 2014, and have continued performing since.

This band provides examples of:

  • Audience Participation Song: Though not designed as such, audiences have been known to carry the whistling part in "Anthony" through to the end of the song.
    • "It started with the hayloft a-creakin', yeah, it just started in the hay-" "LOFT!!!"
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: In "House Carpenter", this is a lesson learned the hard way several times.
  • Bittersweet Ending: "Brand New Sidewalk" on This Side, the title track on Why Should the Fire Die?, and "Where Is Love Now" on A Dotted Line.
  • Break-Up Song: "Hanging by a Thread", "Should've Known Better" and several songs on Why Should the Fire Die?
  • Canon Discontinuity: Their second album, Here to There, had a limited release (only a few hundred copies were ever made), and has been out of print ever since; the band has no intention of ever reissuing it.
  • Caught Up in the Rapture: "21st of May", which Sean wrote from the perspective of Harold Camping, who famously predicted that the rapture would happen on May 21, 2011. It didn't.
  • Celebrity Is Overrated: "Green and Gray".
  • Child Prodigy: All three members. At the time of their first performance, Sara and Chris were 8 and 9, respectively. Sean had actually hit double digits (12). The Thiles and Watkins' home-schooled all three due to the many bluegrass festivals they played at during their teenage years.
  • The Cover Changes the Gender: Done with Sara's take on Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time". Interestingly, her take on "Sabra Girl" does not change the gender.
  • Cover Version: A great many, often songs by fellow folk/country/bluegrass artists. In later years they had a penchant for left-field covers of pop and alternative rock songs, especially in concert when they would tackle artists such as Radiohead, Wilco, or Britney Spears. They earned some cred in indie rock circles for covering Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger" on This Side. They have been known to play a savage version of The Beatles' "Taxman".
  • Crappy Holidays: "Christmas Eve" is about getting dumped during the holiday season.
  • Crisis of Faith: "Doubting Thomas".
  • Darker and Edgier: Why Should the Fire Die? definitely had more of a cynical mood to it than their earlier albums.
  • Downer Ending: "The Lighthouse's Tale", "The Hand Song", and "House Carpenter" all qualify.
  • Driven to Suicide: That poor, poor lighthouse keeper.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Their first two albums were recorded when they were still kids. Needless to say, things changed when Alison Krauss took the band under her wing and they began to come into their own as artists. Nickel Creek was still a fairly straightforward contemporary bluegrass record, but by the time of This Side, they had fully asserted control over their career and the direction of their music.
  • Emo: The melancholy and introspective nature of many of their songs has led critics to informally dub their style "emo-grass".
  • Fake-Out Fade-Out: "Can't Complain" combines this with a bit of a Scare Chord effect.
  • Farmer's Daughter: Sara plays this role in their cover of Mother Mother's "Hayloft", which the band describes as being about "barnyard nookie".
  • Fourth Ranger: Mark Schatz, while not officially a member of the band, has served as their bassist for over a decade now.
  • Friends with Benefits: "Can't Complain" demonstrates why this is easier said than done.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: The protagonist of "Can't Complain" and "Helena" basically uses this as an excuse for his two-timing.
  • In Love with Love: "Love of Mine" personifies this trope, as if Chris were two-timing between an imaginary "perfect" love and an actual flesh-and-blood woman.
  • Instrumentals: And how.
  • Last Note Nightmare: An unreleased song, "Lewis", ended up with all three instruments hitting a sudden, dissonant chord, almost as if their instruments had simultaneously broken.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: "Smoothie Song" got its name when someone brought the band smoothies while they were playing it.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • In between all the heavy songs of heartache on Why Should the Fire Die?, along come two incredibly perky instrumental tracks: "Scotch & Chocolate" and "Stumptown".
    • "Scotch & Chocolate" itself undergoes Mood Whiplash as it quite suddenly shifts from somber to frenetically up-tempo.
    • In a similar vein, "Elephant in the Corn" also shifts dramatically between happy-go-lucky passages and slow, melancholy ones.
  • Motor Mouth: The chorus of "You Don't Know What's Going On" is a bit of a mouthful.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Chris and Sean represented this trope quite well, with Sean being the boy next door type and Chris the shy pretty boy.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Between Nickel Creek and This Side, Sara switched from wearing long dresses, to tight shirts and blue jeans that showed off her curvy figure.
  • One-Woman Song: "Eveline", "Helena", and an inversion in "Anthony", written and sung by Sara.
  • The Perfectionist: Why the central character in "Green and Gray" hates himself despite having a huge, adoring audience.
  • Poe's Law: Since Sean and Sara are Christians, it can be difficult for some listeners to tell whether "21st of May" is serious or tongue-in-cheek. Given that the vast majority of Christians don't even believe in the rapture, let alone that it has a specific date in the near future, it's probably a bit of both. The song is specifically about Harold Camping, who had predicted the second coming of Christ on May 21, 2011, three years before the album was released. He also made the same prediction for September 6, 1994, referenced in the third verse of the song.
  • Prefers Going Barefoot: In "Speak", four unscrupulous girls who enter the theater put their feet up as soon as they sit down, and all of them are barefoot except for one in pants who has polka-dotted socks on. A scene where people crawl under them reveals there are no shoes under their seats, suggesting the girls even entered the theater in their bare feet (and socks) or laid them on top of the seats. In "Reasons Why", Sara is barefoot as she performs, shown from close-ups of her feet near the start of the music video.
  • Roll in the Hay: "Hayloft", naturally. And of course there's a Boyfriend-Blocking Dad with a gun not far behind.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The tongue-in-cheek attitude taken toward the entire world in "21st of May". See Caught Up in the Rapture above.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Chris and Sara get the lion's share of lead vocals, but Sean steps up occasionally, most notably on "This Side", which was actually the lead single from their second album. They began sharing lead vocals more on that album, often with a different vocalist coming in at an unexpected moment.
  • Stop and Go: Lampshaded in "Rest of My Life", which despite being a slower song, still has a lot of stops and starts. At one point Chris sings, "It's one of those endings/Where no one claps 'cause they're sure that there's more."
  • Take That!: Sean sneaks a rather amusing one into "Somebody More Like You":
    I hope you meet someone your height
    So you can see eye to eye
    With someone as small as you.
  • Two Roads Before You: The title track from "This Side" finds Sean wrestling with following his artistic muse versus selling out to please the crowd.
  • Uncommon Time: "In the House of Tom Bombadil" and "Beauty and the Mess" can be rather headache-inducing if you're trying to keep track of the time signature.