When bluegrass trio Nickel Creek released their breakthrough self-titled debut album 23 years ago (on March 21, 2000), they were newcomers to country radio — but they weren’t newcomers to bluegrass. Chris Thile, along with siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, had been playing together for over a decade, since Chris and Sara were eight and Sean was 12.
Nickel Creek showed a wider audience what longtime fans of the trio already knew: Chris, Sara and Sean were all virtuosic musical talents. Their wholly original blend of bluegrass was tinged with influences from folk, jazz, classical and pop; their music was such a mixture of styles, in fact, that it required a different term: newgrass.
Twenty years after Nickel Creek’s incredible debut, The Boot is taking a look back at that self-titled record, and seeing how its songs stack up against each other. Keep ready to see which Nickel Creek track takes the top spot:
“Cuckoo’s Nest” is Nickel Creek’s take on a traditional fiddle song. The cheery, even-keeled tune pulses along at a toe-tapping pace: It’s not one of their rip-roaring barn-burners, but it’s not a slowed-down ballad, either. Like most of Nickel Creek’s instrumentals, it features the three musicians trading lines, overlapping melodies and making it sound much, much easier than it actually is.
“The Hand Song”
Featuring Sara Watkins on lead vocals, “The Hand Song” lands somewhere in the intersection between country, bluegrass, folk and lullaby. Lyrically, it’s the most “country” song of the bunch, with the chorus lyrics — “But she knew it was love / It was one she could understand / He was showing his love / And that’s how he hurt his hands” — shifting in meaning during the course of the song, referring at different times to a little boy, a soldier and Jesus.
“Pastures New” is the 12th and final song on Nickel Creek. While it opens in a minor key, the song soon unfolds into something much different: a soft and sweet nostalgic melody, the musical equivalent of a gentle landing. “Pastures New” is the most sedate of all the instrumentals on Nickel Creek, but that doesn’t mean it’s ever boring.
“In the House of Tom Bombadil”
“In the House of Tom Bombadil” is a bluegrass instrumental that starts off in a hurry (and never really slows down). If it brings to mind thoughts of Middle Earth, there’s a good reason: The song is named after a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The swift, cheerful, zig-zagging song is yet another showcase for Thile’s quick-plucking mandolin.
“Out of the Woods”
If any song on Nickel Creek can be pegged as modern folk, “Out of the Woods” is probably the most likely option. The song is led by Sara Watkins’ vocals, but features all three musicians singing in constant three-part harmony. Compared to other tracks on the album, it’s relatively soft and stripped down, but never boring, with the three singers’ vocal lines finding brilliant ways to overlap and drift apart and overlap again.
“Sweet Afton,” first a poem by Robert Burns and then a traditional Scottish song, becomes something new in the hands of Nickel Creek. Part hymn, part lullaby, part newgrass, “Sweet Afton” finds the group dispensing with their typical two- and three-part harmony structure and letting Chris Thile take solo vocal duty. The result is a wholly original melody, and a wholly original take on a classic, traditional song.
“The Lighthouse’s Tale”
“The Lighthouse’s Tale” may be the most memorable song on Nickel Creek, if only for its distinctive subject matter and point of view. “I am a lighthouse,” Chris Thile sings in the song’s opening lines, “worn by the weather and the waves.” The lighthouse serves as the narrator in this tragic story song about a lighthouse, a lighthouse keeper and the lighthouse keeper’s fiancee. It’s a haunting tale about love and death, and, to our knowledge, the only known bluegrass song sung from the point of view of a sentient lighthouse.
“Robin and Marian”
The biggest and most boisterous of all the instrumentals on Nickel Creek, “Robin and Marian” is one of those songs that’s so energetic, it makes you feel as though you should go running — in the case of this song, through a field? Maybe that’s just us, but either way, this song, inspired by Robin Hood and Maid Marian, certainly conjures up images of merry men fleeing … well, merrily.
Sara Watkins’ vocals are the lead in “Reasons Why” — co-written by her brother Sean; for the first half of the tune, Thile only occasionally joins in for some quiet background harmonies. The track peaks when the three vocalists harmonize the final lines, beginning by singing, “Climb high, to the highest rung / To shake fists at the sky.” It’s soft and funky bluegrass that’s otherwise hard to categorize neatly into any particular genre or style.
“The Fox” might just be the cheeriest song on what is, overall, a pretty cheerful album. It’s a traditional English folk song, and Nickel Creek’s version of it is a bright spot on their debut album. Chris Thile provides the primary vocals for the verses, with Sean and Sara Watkins adding harmonies on the shifting choruses. You’ll have so much fun tapping your foot along that you might not realize that you’re jamming to a song that ends with a depiction of a fox family eating a goose, with the narrator cheerfully declaring, “And the little ones chewed on the bones-o.”
“Ode to a Butterfly”
The opening track to Nickel Creek is the blistering instrumental “Ode to a Butterfly,” the group’s musical interpretation of a butterfly’s flight. On an album where a full third of the songs are instrumentals, opening with this particular song signals what kind of experience listeners are in for. “Ode to a Butterfly” highlights each band member’s other-worldly level of musicianship, with mandolin, fiddle and guitar each taking solo turns. Still, Thile’s mandolin is the star in this one, with his playing so blisteringly quick and good that it’s almost unfair.
“When You Come Back Down”
“When You Come Back Down,” a cover of a Tim O���Brien song, was Nickel Creek’s debut single, and is the highest-charting one of the band’s career. Something like a ballad, “When You Come Back Down” is closer to traditional country or folk than many of the trio’s other songs, but it’s still (despite being a cover) wholly a Nickel Creek track. Thile’s vocals carry the tune from beginning to end, but the deceptively simple song still features expert musicianship and crystal-clear harmonies from start to finish.