Monday, May 19, 2014

Nickel Creek, Newgrass, and Negotiating Authentic Tradition, Part 1: The Backwards Banjo and the Band

With this year’s reunion of Nickel Creek, including a new album release and a tour, I thought it might be a good time to have a series of posts on the pioneering threesome. This series is adapted from a paper I wrote for a Seminar in Popular Music at the University of Michigan in 2010. It’s in 3 parts. Here’s part 1: the Backwards Banjo and the Band.

Can Bluegrass Be Popular?


In 2005, the country group Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband released the rock-inflected “Banjo Boy,” a song about a boy who wants to be a rock star with the fame and lifestyle the myth promises. Something is keeping the boy from achieving his dream, however—he does not play the electric guitar, the prototypical rock start instrument. Instead, he plays the banjo, an instrument associated not with popular music, but with the niche music genre bluegrass. While appearing in some popular songs, the banjo has been relegated to the margins of popular music and is often used for humor or as the subject of ridicule, “Banjo Boy” being an example. The obvious solution for this boy would be to stop playing the banjo, but the prominent bluegrass-style banjo solo that marks the end of the song suggests that the boy is unwilling to do so. Though the song is meant to be humorous, this tension between this fictional banjo player and his rock-star dreams reflects a real situation—many young people today enjoy folk-influenced styles of music and new styles of popular music, yet the two musics occupy different spheres of existence and rarely cross paths. 

A similar tension exists in a more serious song released in 2005, Nickel Creek’s “When in Rome.” Its lyrics present various situations in which people refuse new ideas and knowledge that could improve their life, preferring instead the old ways to which they are accustomed. Like “Banjo Boy,” “When in Rome” could be read as a critique of modern musical tastes—contemporary audiences are unwilling to entertain new ideas about qualifies as popular music, to their detriment.

The tension between the past and future in “When in Rome” is evident in Nickel Creek’s career. While none of Nickel Creek’s members (Sean Watkins, acoustic guitar; his sister Sara Watkins, fiddle; and Chris Thile, mandolin) play the banjo, they share are the same problem as the “Banjo Boy”—their type of ensemble is mostly unknown in popular music, especially the inclusion of Thile’s mandolin, an instrument most Americans could not name on sight. Their formative musical training is in bluegrass music. Yet despite their instrumentation and training, Nickel Creek became popular beyond the traditional bluegrass base; at the beginning of the 2000s, they released three commercially successful albums, earning top spots on the bluegrass and country charts while crossing over into the pop charts: the eponymous Nickel Creek (2000, #135 on Billboard Hot 200, went Platinum), This Side (2002, #18 on Billboard Hot 200), and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005, #17 on Billboard Hot 200).

From the deep ‘burbs of San Diego…

Though the name “Nickel Creek” is pure bluegrass, drawing on a long tradition of naming groups (and songs) after fictional small streams, the group has a non-stereotypical biography. The three grew up in the San Diego suburbs instead of the rural Southeast. In addition to their bluegrass training, they received some classical training—Sara Watkins with the Suzuki violin method and Thile starting a degree in classical violin until the success of their first album (1). Besides listening to bluegrass albums and Austin City Limits, they also explored artists outside traditional bluegrass fare, such as Counting Crows, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Elliot Smith (2). They did not hide their upbringing in their presentation—instead of the usual suits with cowboy hats and boots, they wore more fashionable modern attire.

As they began playing and touring together in their early teens, however, their technical ability on their acoustic instruments gave the group strong bluegrass legitimacy. Thile was especially well regarded, recording critically acclaimed solo albums at the ages of thirteen and sixteen. For another post about Thile as a solo artist, see this. The group’s big break came when Alison Krauss, herself hailed as a bluegrass prodigy a generation earlier, agreed to produce them on the Sugar Hill label (3).

During the years between the Nickel Creek album and their breakup in 2007, the group attracted new audiences by approaching their bluegrass instruments from a different angle, taking inspiration from popular music. They challenged “authentic” bluegrass traditions by becoming progressively more experimental in their approach to their music and its lyrical content. Despite this experimentation, they continued to attract bluegrass audiences as well. Nickel Creek was able to successfully negotiate outside influences into their largely acoustic and bluegrass-motivated musical sound, earning the hybrid genre label “newgrass,” a word that itself suggests novel experimentation while still observing tradition.

In order to understand how Nickel Creek balanced tradition and innovation, we’ll need to understand the context, or the history of bluegrass from its inception (in the actually quite recent past) to the present, which will be the subject of part 2. In part 3, I’ll examine in more musical detail the three albums Nickel Creek produced before their breakup: Nickel Creek, This Side, and Why Should the Fire Die.

Vocab: mandolin, Suzuki Violin, acoustic, eponymous

(1) Jeffery Pepper Rodgers, “Up on Nickel Creek: How Three Bluegrass Prodigies Became One of the Freshest Successes in Pop Music,” Acoustic Guitar 13 (December 2002). 

(2) Ibid.
(3) Craig Havighurst, “Nickel Creek: Newgrass Wunderkinder,” Acoustic Guitar 11 (August 2000): 16–17.


  1. Hey Peter! I've always thought that your blog was really cool as it takes an intellectual approach to music. Or at least it has seemed to based on the titles of your posts...I must admit that until today I had never read any of your pieces as I'm not so much into music. However, I'm a huge Nickel Creek fan. They are probably the first "bluegrass" group that caught my attention. I'd never heard of them until March 2006 when I was doing hurricane cleanup in New Orleans. One evening we went to their show at the House of Blues and it was amazing! It was such a fun, intimate setting and really enjoyed their sound and songs. They were touring to promote Why Should the Fire Die? and I immediately purchased that and their two earlier albums. I introduced them to my dad who also fell in love. He has sung in multiple groups over the years and loves a cappella, gospel, and bluegrass. He and I went to see them at least once, at Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte. I was so disappointed when they broke up but was really excited for their new album and tour this year. I had planned to go see them in Charlottesville but then my hospital visit got in the way...I'm hoping to get to one of their shows in Boone or Cary later in the summer. Anyway, I'm so glad to learn more about their history and look forward to the next two posts!

    1. Thanks for sharing Sarah! Why do you think you liked them, especially as someone who is "not so much into music"?