Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins have played together as Nickel Creek for over 30 years. The trio first met in 1989 in Southern California and released six albums between 1993 and 2014, although the first two are out of print and not available on streaming services. They took a long hiatus in 2007 before returning with a new album and touring in 2014. The trio also performed regularly on NPR. Live from here which Thile hosted until the radio series ended in 2020. More recently, they reunited for Nickel Stream: A Livecreek Experiencea series of live performances available to stream online in early 2021.
While each member of Nickel Creek remains busy with other projects, the original band is always a place to come back to. In addition to Live from here Thile is a founding member of Punch Brothers, with whom he still performs alongside Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowart. Their group has released six full albums and two EPs, including their latest album Hell on Church Street, which dropped on January 14, 2022. Sara Watkins and her brother Sean perform regularly solo and as The Watkins Family, and they are regularly joined by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Sara also formed I’m With Her in 2018, where she performed alongside Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. As a solo artist, Sean Watkins has released six full albums.
The trio stay pretty busy, even when they’re apart. Their career really took off when Alison Krauss produced their 2000 self-titled album which earned multiple Grammy nominations. Their catalog is an eclectic mix of traditional bluegrass instruments, genre originals that can fit country or pop radio, and bluegrass covers from other artists. Notably, the band covered Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” in 2002. This side and “Hayloft” from Mother Mother on 2014 A dotted line. For this list, we’ll focus on the first two and exclude covers.
Here are The Boot’s picks for Nickel Creek’s 10 best songs to date:
Most of Thile’s songs are filled with self-loathing, heartbreak and tragedy. This one is a lot of the first. In “Helena”, the narrator courts while wanting to be alone.
“You’re good Helena / Guys like me never sleep alone at night / I don’t need your sympathy / ‘Cause I’ll always be / Alright / Yeah I’ll always be / Alright”
Written by Thile, “When in Rome” is about “burn everything” and instrumentally matches its lyrical themes more than most of the trio’s other tracks.
A breakup song featuring Sara on lead vocals, “Destination” centers on the type of relationship people often rush into as soon as another fails. But this time, the narrator is determined to move on for good.
“I must make a destination / Find a place where I will be loved / This time I have no hesitation / And I will move on”
Sean Watkins wrote this one from the perspective of Harold Camping, a California preacher who predicted the end of the world on May 21, 2011. In “May 21,” he approaches the narrator’s cries with a heavy dose of cynicism.
“They laughed when Noah built his boat / Then cried when the rain came / They’re laughing at me now but I’ll float / May 21st”
It’s arguably Thile’s darkest song, with an accompaniment and tone that makes it sound like a much happier love story than it actually is. The story is told from the perspective of a lighthouse who saw his keeper find and ultimately lose his future wife in the sea.
“I saw him cry / I saw him bury it in the sand / And then he climbed my tower / And at the edge of me he ran”
“You Don’t Know What’s Going On” centers on a codependent relationship in which the narrator believes he has been wronged, even though he should have seen it coming. But when he finally finds a new relationship, he immediately demands that his partner carry the brunt of the relationship, repeating a toxic cycle.
“I just know that I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ll try for you / If you want to / If you can be the girl who / Believes in me / Who believes I can turn things around / Who doesn’t keep emptying the water while the boat is sinking / Who keeps calling me when we start to drown”
“Ode to a Butterfly” was the instrumental track that introduced Nickel Creek to mainstream audiences. It’s a traditional, rhythmic bluegrass jam session that lets every member shine – Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on fiddle and Sean Watkins on guitar. When the track and album debuted, Thile and Sara Watkins were still just teenagers.
“Beauty and Disorder”
From: “This Side” (2002)
“Beauty and the Mess” is a metaphor built on the music industry and likely inspired by events in Nickel Creek’s own career. Sara handles lead vocals here, but she bounces Thile’s chorus.
“Behind the melody the words don’t mean a thing / But every tone I play will give away everything I didn’t say”
From: “This Side” (2002)
In this song performed by Sean Watkins, the narrator explains how much they are afraid of change. Slowly, a new way of life begins to feel more familiar and becomes easier to adopt over time.
“It’s foreign on this side / But I feel like I’m home again / There’s no place to hide / But I don’t think I’m afraid”
From: “This Side” (2002)
“Smoothie Song” served as the lead track on the 2002 album This side. During a concert recorded for their album Live at the Fox Theater, Thile joked onstage about the difficulty of naming the instrumental tracks, as there are no lyrical phrases to reference, a conundrum that led to this track’s unique title.