- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

NASHVILLE Tenn — Poised for a commercial breakthrough, bluegrass-based trio Nickel Creek chose to record a quirky album likely to perplex as many listeners as it delights.

The young acoustic band sold more than a half-million of its critically acclaimed 2000 album, "Nickel Creek," with the help of Country Music Television, which constantly played Nickel Creek's music videos. But radio play on country stations the thing that helps sells millions of albums was spotty.

To fix that, some bands would hire a producer hip to what radio programmers want and record a batch of simple love songs from Nashville's songwriting industry. They would hire a drummer, de-emphasize the fiddle and mandolin, and make more videos featuring the band's looks. Then, they'd sit back and cash the checks.

Nickel Creek didn't do that on their new album, "This Side" (Sugar Hill Records).

"I think there was the thought that we were going to put out something very digestible for radio," said fiddle player Sara Watkins, 21. "Where's the fun in that? That's what everybody does. The minute you try and make any kind of music that's designed to sell, you've lost."

The group's progressive grass-roots sound is rounded out by Miss Watkins' 25-year-old brother, Sean (guitar), and mandolinist Chris Thile, 21, a former child prodigy. They all sing and write songs.

Their range of musical influences (classical, jazz, pop and bluegrass) shines on "This Side," an alternately exhilarating, somewhat precious, innovative album. Produced by bluegrass folk artist Alison Krauss, it's impossible to categorize.

Instead of drums, tape loops of acoustic instruments help set the rhythms. Fast-paced bluegrass picking is banished. The lyrics are personal, and sometimes elliptical. Pop song melodies that veer on psychedelia drift by, and jarring bursts of string sections quickly muscle in and out of the arrangements.

Sean Watkins said some Nashville executives counseled him to slow down the experimentation to find a niche to "bring the public along."

"They say that you kind of have to bring your own level down so people can understand you," he said. "If the industry was not so condescending toward the audience, maybe we wouldn't be listening to trash right now. Maybe we'd be listening to really great music like the Beatles or something. It's so depressing right now."

Nickel Creek began playing together more than a decade ago at a pizza joint near their San Diego homes. All developed into prizewinning bluegrass instrumentalists, and as a band won the Pizza Hut International Bluegrass Band Championship in 1994.

Though they put out a children's album, "Little Cowpoke," the band considers "Nickel Creek" its debut. The combination of killer musical chops, pop song sensibilities and youthful appeal earned the group sales of more than 600,000.

"Before, we didn't think that we had an audience except for people who would come to our shows at bluegrass festivals," Mr. Thile says. "Now all of a sudden I can see a big, giant, half-a-million people audience out there. That's really exciting. And, of course, it's a big responsibility, and there are expectations being placed on us."

Nickel Creek manager John Peets says he encouraged the band to forget those expectations while recording "This Side."

"They're growing up in the music world with ears open to everything," Mr. Peets says. "The best thing you can do is let that creativity blossom in the studio, and keep it insulated from the other factors that go on in the music business."

Mr. Peets says Nickel Creek is "not a broad-stroke band," so he approaches each market separately. He targets country stations in some cities, alternative rock or bluegrass stations in others.

The approach appears to work. "This Side" sold more than 50,000 in its first week (Aug. 13), and earned a No. 2 spot on the Billboard country album chart and No. 18 on the overall album chart.

"The beauty of this band is that all we've got to do is get them in front of a music-loving audience," Mr. Peets says. "It doesn't matter if they play with Ralph Stanley or Dave Matthews. They will win in both of those situations."

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