Five-cent ambitions: Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins focuses on solo career

Sean Watkins steps away from the legacy of Nickel Creek to reclaim his solo career at the Southern on Tuesday. Publicity photo Sean Watkins steps away from the legacy of Nickel Creek to reclaim his solo career at the Southern on Tuesday. Publicity photo

Nickel Creek, a band synonymous with progressive string music for more than 25 years, is no more—for real this time—and founding member Sean Watkins doesn’t seem to give a hoot.

Co-founded by Chris Thile, Watkins and his sister Sara, the trio disbanded after a highly successful year. The band released a new album last spring, A Dotted Line, for the first time since going on hiatus in 2007. They went on tour in support of the album and collected accolade after accolade, from their hard-won fan base and critics alike. Their success was acknowledged earlier this year when A Dotted Line was nominated for two Grammy’s: one for Best Americana Album, and the second track on the record, “Destination,” won the band a nomination for Best American Roots Performance.

But for any Nickel Creek fans who thought this might signal more to come, Watkins is here to dispel your hopes.

“It was just a one time thing,” he said without remorse in a recent phone interview. “We knew we had things coming, so it was a limited time we had.”

The things that were coming were two. Nickel Creek co-founder, lead singer and widely acknowledged mandolin master Chris Thile is looking to focus on his progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, not to mention countless side projects, guest appearances and sit-ins. Watkins is now focusing on his solo career and has launched a tour, that will bring him to the Southern Café and Music Hall on February 24.

According to Watkins’ official statement, his latest move is due to his “drive to step out of supportive roles in bands.” Just how long is Thile’s shadow? Look again at this year’s Grammy’s. While Nickel Creek failed to nail down a win in either of the categories for which it was nominated, Thile collected three other nominations with collaborator Edgar Meyer and took home a shiny trophy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.

So perhaps there was some unrest all along in Nickel Creek. Perhaps Watkins always suffered from the feeling that the band he started in when he was 12 years old was really Thile’s band.

“No,” he said. “It was always our band. We had been doing it for almost 20 years, and we wanted to do other things, so we quit [in 2007] before it got old.”

On to other things, then.

Watkins’ latest effort, All I Do Is Lie, isn’t his first outside of Nickel Creek. He formed an indie-folk duo, Fiction Family, in 2005 with Switchfoot front man Jon Foreman and does a monthly live show with his sister called the “Watkins Family Hour.” During Nickel Creek’s time off, he’s toured with songwriters like Jackson Browne and Lyle Lovett.

But this is the first time he’s gone all out with a solo project, and the first time he’s gone on the road in support of songs he wrote for himself. “My goal for songwriting with Nickel Creek was different,” he said.

The result, All I Do Is Lie, is a collection of more country-western tunes than Watkins had previously penned, with the guitar player strumming behind his Southern drawl and steel guitars filling out the sound.

“I just wanted to make a record that was as much me as possible, and I didn’t want to do things that weren’t my forte,” Watkins said. “I tend to stay in my wheelhouse, and a big part of where I came from is bluegrass, folk and country.”

It’s a record full of warbly laments. On “Made for TV Movie,” Watkins wails, “You and I both know just what we are/We are never going to make it too far/There’ll be no nominations, there’s never going to be a prize/Unless there’s one for losing and never tryin’.” Mostly, it’s songs that would be far more at home alongside traditional country tracks than the more experimental stuff that had been coming out of Nickel Creek in recent years.

And while All I Do Is Lie isn’t on the level of most Nickel Creek releases, it certainly has highlights. It consistently shows off Watkins’ formidable guitar chops and songwriting skill, and most endearingly, it’s bare and vulnerable.

“I don’t know, I just hope people like it,” Watkins said. “It is very personal. A lot of it is autobiographical. I was very proud of it.”

Watkins grew up in San Diego, not exactly a hotbed of Americana and country music. But that didn’t stop him from following what he figured was his calling. He found pockets of bluegrass and fell in love with it. It loved him back: Forming a band with the likes of Thile before he was even a teenager was nothing short of a miracle.

Only now are we finding out that it was perhaps also a curse. When Watkins takes the stage with vocalist/guitarist Dominique Arciero and bassist Tyler Chester, he’ll just be getting started on the road to breaking that curse.

Sean Watkins plays at The Southern Café and Music Hall on February 24

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