From Sean Watkins’ first commanding acoustic guitar strokes on “The Rest of My Life,” it’s obvious Nickel Creek has grown up. Sister Sara Watkins’ fiddle slides between the notes of the melody, coaxing drama from what may be the first emerging-triumphant-from-the-wreckage-of-the-morning-after’s-hangover song. Swooping through a series of images, gently plucked notes fall against a swell of robust three-part harmony on the chorus, embracing life as it comes.
Since the release of their outstanding and genre-bending 2005 record Why Should The Fire Die?, the members of California bluegrass trio Nickel Creek have moved on to bigger things, some greater and some not so great. Fiddler Sara Watkins has released two decent solo albums, while guitarist brother Sean released a dud of a record in 2009 with Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman. On the other side of the quality spectrum, mandolin player Chris Thile has gone on to release a great album of Bach music and has won a MacArthur Genius Grant, not to mention his growing success with The Punch Brothers.
In 2007, Why Should the Fire Die? became much more than a rhetorical question for the fans of Nickel Creek. Two years after the release of that album, the group declared it would go on an indefinite hiatus, leaving many aghast. After all, though the trio of Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile had been playing and writing music together for eighteen years by that point, during that time they only released three major studio LPs, Nickel Creek (2000), This Side (2002), and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005).
A Nickel Creek reunion was perhaps inevitable. Neither Sara Watkins nor Sean Watkins ceased performing together during their seven-year hiatus and while Chris Thile saw some success with the Punch Brothers, the pull of a 25th anniversary reunion was too strong to resist. To accompany a 2014 tour, the trio recorded the new album A Dotted Line, a record that adhered to the group's traditions so much they wound up whittling away most of their progressive leanings.
Since Nickel Creek never broke up—they just went on a lengthy hiatus in 2008—it’s hard to call this next step a reunion, even if it comes on the band’s 25th anniversary. With only three previous studio albums in their slim catalog and with an average age in the early 30s, it’s odd to think the trio has been kicking around that long. But you don’t get to the level of instrumental proficiency of these three musicians overnight.
Nickel Creek didn’t officially break up when it went on the dreaded “indefinite hiatus” in 2007, but given the prolific and disparate solo/side-project tracks its three members subsequently followed—and the fact that the hiatus capped a nearly 20-year history for the still-young band—the break certainly seemed more like a period than an ellipsis. So the surprise re-formation of the progressive acoustic trio to commemorate its 25-year anniversary has a legitimate claim to the “reunion” tag, despite the over-employment of that term in the hype-obsessed industry. Announced just two months ago, in conjunction with a nationwide tour, Nickel Creek’s sixth album, A Dotted Line, serves as both a summary document of the group of thirtysomethings’ incongruously long history together, and an indication of how they’ve grown individually in their years apart.
When this virtuosic roots trio went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2007 it wasn’t to take a vacation, although they’d certainly earned one having played together since childhood. Instead, all three singer-instrumentalists — mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins, and guitarist Sean Watkins — pursued a plethora of solo and group projects that traversed bluegrass, country, pop, rock, and classical. But like old friends who fall right back into conversation, Nickel Creek picks up the thread in glorious fashion on “A Dotted Line.