Parlor Pickin' and Pepperoni (Nickle Creek)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The local pizza-parlor bluegrass show that lit the pilot light for Nickel Creek


Parlor Pickin' and Pepperoni

The local pizza-parlor bluegrass show
that lit the pilot light for Nickel Creek


Mixed in among the anchovies and the tomato sauce was another ingredient that spiced up the little Carlsbad, California pizza joint - bluegrass music. As the popular local band, Bluegrass, Etc., played at "That Pizza Place" in 1989, they cranked up the energy in the room. Soon, the feet of the hungry kids and their families began tapping in unison with their chomping mouths.As the pizza chefs splashed the spicy sauce across the waiting dough, the band splashed the room with a syncopated shower of musical notes. And like the chefs' glittering circular knives, their high-pitched vocals sliced through the air with ease. Yes, the "musical chefs" knew they were also adding spice to the recipe. What they didn't know was...they were mixing the ingredients for a tasty treat that, more than a decade later, would sizzle and bubble across the bluegrass scene like molten mozzarella.

Among the tapping toes were those of twelve-year-old Sean Watkins and two eight-year-olds - his sister, Sara, and a neighborhood boy, Chris Thile. The ties that drew the two families to the pizza parlor were musical. Sean had been taking piano lessons and his teacher invited him and his family to hear her son play in a bluegrass band at the local pizza parlor. Intrigued...though not quite sure what bluegrass was, they accepted.

Young Chris Thile had been taking mandolin lessons from Blue-grass Etc. band-member, John Moore. So Chris and his family also received an invitation to hear them play.Once the families had ordered their pizzas and turned their eyes and ears toward the band, magic struck. "It was really fun music," Sean recalled. "As a kid, It was just a lot more fun, and I took to it a lot more." All three of the entranced youngsters would continue their formal music training, but like Sean, the other two had been infected with the bluegrass bug. The rigid rules of their traditional music lessons began to seem more and more like boundaries just waiting to be expanded.As they began to soak up the bluegrass style, a local promoter approached them with the idea of forming a band. The promoter knew they had musical ability, but as Sara recalled, the reason they were assembled was more like "How cute would it be if they all played together at festivals?" It was cute, of course, but before long, their talent overshadowed their "cuteness."

Recruiting Chris's father, Scott, on string bass, they began to promote their little band. Christening themselves, "Nickel Creek," taken from the name of a fiddle tune one of their friends had written, they soon became regulars on the festival circuit. Originally, Sean played mandolin and Chris, the guitar, but the two soon switched instruments.  The decade of the 1990's gave the youngsters time to hone their skills in front of appreciative audiences. As their sounds fused together, they each excelled individually. By 12, Chris released a critically acclaimed mandolin album. At 15, Sara won the Arizona State Fiddle Championship. And Sean, at 16, was a finalist in the National Flat-picking Guitar Championship. It was clear that Nickel Creek had much more to offer than cuteness.

As the 1990's progressed, so did the young group's style. Since freedom from strict rules had attracted them to bluegrass in the first place, it was inevitable that they would soon begin stretching those musical boundaries. They started mixing in bits and pieces of other genres they loved. Little by little, they included elements of folk, jazz, rock...and even old-time theater and classical music."We're a conglomeration of everything we listen to," Chris once explained. What they listen to, incidentally, stretches from The Beatles to Radiohead to Bach. Needless to say, many a bluegrass purist has raised a questioning eyebrow when one of these divergent influences surfaced in a Nickel Creek song. In response, Sean reminds critics that bluegrass itself was a hybrid. "It started off as an experiment, a combination," he points out. "It was very cutting-edge at the time, and it's really not even that old."

New York Times writer, Terry Teachout, may have summarized their approach best in his article on Nickel Creek. "The house that Bill Monroe built," he noted, "seems to be going through a stylistic remodeling..." They have been labeled as everything from "Bluegrass Revivalists" to "Acoustic Innovators." When asked to categorize their style, their friend and producer, Alison Krauss, simply smiled and said, "It's just Nickel Creek music."

Despite the occasional raised eyebrow, "Nickel Creek music" has been repeatedly honored by their fans and fellow musicians. Their 2000 self-titled release on Sugar Hill netted them the IBMA's Emerging Artist of the Year award. The following year, that association named them Instrumental Group of the Year, Their next album, This Side, won a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Folk Album." Their 2005 album, Why Should The Fire Die? strayed even farther from their bluegrass roots but also garnered nominations and awards. So did their individual songs like "Smoothie Song" and "Scotch & Chocolate."

Once their career took off in 2000, Chris's father, Scott, left the band, assured Nickel Creek was on a solid path to success. They worked with several bass players, with Mark Schatz eventually settling into the role. One of the best aspects of their success, according to Sean, was being able to play alongside the musicians they had admired as children. And they were able to play alongside some of the best in the field.During the years since their national breakthrough until they went their separate ways in 2007, they played with everyone from Bela Fleck to Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Conner. "You get to share a stage with your heroes," Sean enthused, "Really, really cool!" Those "heroes" likely also thought it was "really cool" to share the stage with Nickel Creek, the young cutting-edge musicians who traveled light years since the days of parlor-pickin' and pepperoni.

Submitted: October 01, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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