Sara Watkins grew up playing bluegrass. A gifted fiddler, singer and songwriter, she was just 8 years old when she first put bow to string. For the next 18 years, she played alongside her brother Sean Watkins and 2012 Genius Grant recipient Chris Thile in the Grammy Award-winning progressive bluegrass outfit, Nickel Creek.
In 2007, after Nickel Creek’s Farewell (for Now) Tour, Watkins launched a solo career. Though she found the role of bandleader “daunting, occasionally” —she suddenly had the added duties of being tour manager, travel planner and budget balancer—the discomfort didn’t last long and the upside is sweet: she has the freedom to fully explore her musical vision.
“Creatively, it’s been so fun,” she says from her home in Carlsbad, Calif. “I’ve been able to bring some really great musicians out on the road with me, and I’ve been able to do some great tours that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was on the Nickel Creek schedule.”
Lately, Watkins has been all over the Americana music world. She’s released two solo albums, toured with Jackson Browne, and was the first-ever guest host on A Prairie Home Companion. She also co-created, with her brother Sean, the Watkins Family Hour podcast, played on a Steve Earle record and toured with indie rock royalty, the Decemberists.
“Being on tour with the Decemberists was the first time I was a sideman,” she says, explaining that fewer responsibilities allowed her to “refresh from a couple of grueling years on the road” and work on new material.
“The gig gave me time to listen to music again, watch movies and read books again,” she continues. “It let me just kind of absorb things rather than put out all the time. There’s only so much you can say before you start listening to what other people have to say.”
On the road with the Decemberists, she was able to finish writing her latest release, titled Sun Midnight Sun. The album further establishes Watkins as a force in the Americana music world.
Not overly concerned with staying within stylistic boundaries, Watkins keeps her focus on making music that she loves. “I’m really happy with [Sun Midnight Sun],” she says. “I enjoyed making and I enjoy playing the songs every night on tour. After a certain point, I don’t even think about genres.”