A Larger Living Room, a Taller Stage: Watkins Family Takes It on the Road
Folk music, in all of its forms, is about family – the universal family of artists and audience. It’s a worldwide family of restless human souls who find melodic expressions of love and redemption calling them toward their best selves.
Since 2002, Sara and Sean Watkins – best known as sibling co-founders of the Grammy-winning innovative acoustic trio Nickel Creek – have held a monthly residency known as The Watkins Family Hour at the Largo at the Coronet in Los Angeles. There is a warm sense of intimate elegance to that plush little theater. You can almost hear the echoes of vaudeville, old-time radio shows, classic plays, and the films of the Hollywood’s Golden Age dating back to 1947, when the theater was built. The Watkins Family shows started under the radar, an opportunity for the brother and sister to relax and air out new material. But the show gradually became a unique musical outlet. It has turned into a family gathering of sorts, allowing the artists to invite friends – including Greg Leisz, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, and others – to experience the pure joy of music without the pressures of recording studios and tour schedules. The band that has grown around the Watkins siblings, as some of their Largo guests have become regulars, includes some of the finest veteran session musicians in L.A.’s music industry. The audience has been drawn into the gatherings as well.
After 13 years as a live music event held exclusively at Largo, this week the Watkins Family Hour’s first album will release. It includes a generous helping of re-inventions of traditional country and honky-tonk tunes, as well as inventive covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, and The Grateful Dead. What’s more, they’re taking the band on the road, well beyond Largo, to celebrate this album’s release.
“It’s been a welcome relief,” Sara Watkins explained in a recent phone interview. “[Sean and I] are always working on arrangements of songs. The Family Hour has given us a place to be looser than we would be when we’re in the studio or on the road.”
The looseness she refers to runs deep in the roots of American folk music. While it took hold in the family jams of the 18th and 19th centuries, loose gatherings became a matter of official music history when A.P. Carter began exploring songs of the working families in the mountains and valleys around Appalachia during the 1920s. The songs he collected sprang from family traditions that had been handed down from Western European and African roots. Those melodies were worked out on acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos, and mandolins and later formed the core of country, folk, and blues music.
At the same time, the distinctive sound of bluegrass was emerging through family and community gatherings. Up in Kentucky, a very young Bill Monroe picked up the mandolin from his siblings during such a family hour. It wasn’t long before the guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolins found their way from families’ front porches to local stages, then to the radio and recordings of the day.
But it works both ways. During more recent decades, as pop culture has been dominated by music driven by celebrity and moneymaking, some artists have found their way back to the symbolic front porches of their families and communities.
One can trace such a line with Sara and Sean Watkins – they grew up in the small town of Vista in northern San Diego County, California. Their musical inclinations showed early and were nurtured by their family.
“We have great parents,” Sean Watkins says. “When we were kids, they always inspired us to believe we could do anything we want. They let us choose what instrument we wanted to play. I decided on piano when I was eight or nine.” His sister Sara, meanwhile, decided to learn the violin when she was six. Unlike Sean, who moved from piano to mandolin and guitar, she stuck with her first instrument, which remains her constant in performance.
One reason her brother migrated from keys to strings was the stringband culture that had been growing in the San Diego area since the early ’60s. When they were still young children, Sean and Sara were introduced to a bluegrass scene that formed at That Pizza Place in nearby Oceanside, with gatherings every Saturday night. That community centered around a group known as Bluegrass ETC, with John Moore and Dennis Caplinger. Moore became Sean’s guitar and mandolin teacher while Caplinger taught violin to Sara. Soon, other mentors came along. Bluegrass aritsts like Dan Clary, John Hickman, and fiddle great Byron Berline, who influenced Sara to achieve even greater heights on fiddle.
“Those Saturday nights – that was where I met Chris Thile,” Sean remembers. “There really wasn’t very much roots music in the area back then. So there were all these people into bluegrass. It rubbed off on us. We were there every Saturday night. Soon they got us playing with them.”
Learning from Festivals
The Watkins parents, both public school teachers, had summers off. Not only did they make sure to verse their children in the music of artists like Bob Dylan, but they also took them to outdoor music festivals scattered throughout California and Nevada, where Sara and Sean continued to hone their craft. “Before we were playing music,” Sara says, “our parents would take us camping during those summer months. When we got into the music, they would take us out of the way to bluegrass festivals in the middle of nowhere. I remember going to a music camp in the San Gabriel Mountains. We went to the desert, to Calico Ghost Town, and to local festivals at Julian where they had banjo and fiddle contests.”
The Watkins parents and the music community that surrounded them helped to lay the foundation for what later became The Watkins Family Hour. This raw material – nurtured in private lessons, at-home jams, bluegrass pizza gatherings, and national festival exposure – was what built Nickel Creek. Named after one of Berline’s instrumentals, Nickel Creek had its first performance at That Pizza Place in 1989, with Thile’s father, Scott, on stand-up bass.
As fate would have it, the trio of youngsters eventually attracted the attention of bluegrass-country veteran Alison Krauss. In 2000, she produced their now-classic self-titled album, which earned them a Grammy nomination. As a result, they developed a diverse audience that included bluegrass fans and critics as well as fans of Americana, roots, alt-country, and rock.
The albums Sean and Sara Watkins made with Chris Thile, as Nickel Creek, during the first decade of the 2000s solidified their reputation as artists who transcended genre with an instrumental mastery that left many of their peers stunned. The trio had an instinct for songwriting and song interpretation that was particularly strong on vocal and instrumental phrasing. They became a hot-ticket item for many established artists to include on tour bills, including giants of Americana like Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill. Dolly Parton was so taken with Nickel Creek that she invited them to perform as her backing band on the 2001 Grammy Awards show.
However, it was their 2002 album, This Side, that proved to be their most successful release and demonstrated Sara and Sean’s ability to move outside of the bluegrass fold and revealed the influence that alternative rock had on the young artists. They were able to comfortably, seamlessly enlarge their canvas to include music that was both experimental and accessible. Such creativity has followed them throughout their career – with Nickel Creek as well as the many projects that have sprung up during and since. This instinct for innovation has contributed to their appeal to a broad audience, many of whom might never attend a bluegrass concert.
Branching Out from Nickel Creek
After two decades of togetherness, along with an epic tour history and a string of fine albums, Nickel Creek was able to launch a Farewell (For Now) tour in 2007 and a reunion album and tour in 2014. Although they have no Nickel Creek projects in the works right now, both Watkins siblings are positive there will be more such reunions in the future.
For Sean and Sara, the on-again/off-again status of their original band is par for the course in their musical adventures. “One key thing for the musical partnership with Sean,” Sara says, “is we have outside interests, but we still come together. Being in one musical project can be a strain. So much pressure is put on that one project. But, there is this seamless flow for us [with our] various outings. It’s how we learned to work together.”
These outside projects are a clear indication that the world of stringband music has become their extended family. They find a universal kinship with other musicians who travel the same road. Sara’s two solo albums – the John Paul Jones-produced Sara Watkins and its follow-up, Sun Midnight Sun – brought guest musicians including Fiona Apple and Dave Rawlings into the fold as she furthered her own personal legacy of song. She has also toured with The Decemberists and, more recently, embarked on a trio project called I’m With Her with kindred-spirit artists Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. Sean, meanwhile, has released four solo albums, including 2014’s All I Do Is Lie. He also played with Mutual Admiration Society, which included Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket and Led Zeppelin bassist (and Sara Watkins producer) John Paul Jones. He and Sara have also both recorded and toured with Works Progress Administration, which included Phillips and many of the same players who appear on the Family Hour.
But, despite all their other projects and collaborations – including supporting each others’ solo efforts – the Watkins Family Hour has remained Sara and Sean’s main source of creative and artistic stability since 2002. “I will be endlessly thankful to the owner of the Largo for the Family Hour,” Sara notes. “It changed my whole musical life.”
She pauses before emphasizing, “It changed my personal life. It has strengthened me a lot to be able to let my hair down, to focus on the band, make a few mistakes, [to] learn and grow.”
Both she and Sean agree there are two important ingredients that make the Watkins Family Hour such a success: the band and the audience. Of course, the band has evolved over the years. Today’s members, who appear on the group’s self-titled album, include Greg Leisz (Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen) on pedal steel and guitar, Don Heffington (Lone Justice, Bob Dylan) on drums, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on piano, Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing) on bass, and singer-songwriter Fiona Apple. To boot, Sara adds, “Sean has become a really good band leader. Everyone catches on quickly. They intuit when to stop, start, or drop out, when to stop playing. The song is the thing. We often surprise each other.”
To hear it from the band, the experience of this musical family and the joy of playing without pressure has kept them coming back.
“I first met Sara and Sean Watkins when Sara shyly called me on the phone many years ago to play on some early demos she was doing for her first solo album,” Leisz recalls. “I soon found myself playing with them every chance I could. Their collaborative spirit and passion for playing music drew me in, and they have been a real inspiration to me ever since. Benmont, Don, and Sebastian are all longtime friends who I’ve shared many memorable musical moments with them through the years. I’ve known Fiona for 20 years, since I played on her first album, and I absolutely adore her.
“I’m a lucky guy to have been adopted into the Watkins family,” he adds. “It really does feel like a family, but one where everyone gets along!”
That feeling is mutual. “Playing with [Greg Leisz], standing next to him,” Sara says, “it’s been the first time that I felt my knees buckled under by what [someone] was playing.”
A Rotating Roster of Very Special Guests
Special guests throughout the years have included Dawes, Jackson Browne, and actor John C. Reilly. But, for Sara Watkins, the most memorable show was when Booker T joined them. “We were glowing when he was on stage with us,” she recalls. “He is magic.”
The Largo at the Coronet is such an intimate venue, it easily extends the Watkins family feeling out into the crowd. “A lot of people have been following the shows there,” Sean says. “We have even noticed people coming back with family and friends.”
“Because of the relaxed nature of the musicians and the shows, people feel at ease,” Sara adds. “We have a rapport with them. The audience feels different at the Family Hour than at an ordinary concert. There’s a hospitality to it. There really is a family feel to it.”
With the growth of this family feeling and the success of the Largo shows over the years, requests for an album became unavoidable. The result is live-in-the-studio session work that has brought the warmth and creativity of their live shows onto a record.
The album, titled simply The Watkins Family Hour, is a gentle revelation, reminiscent of the kind of clarity found on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Recorded live in the studio with that same familiality, each song was a uniquely chosen cover, with one exception: “King of the 12 Ounce Bottles,” which is sung by WFH drummer Don Heffington and written by punk rocker Lee Ving.
Of course, calling the songs “covers” doesn’t do them justice. They are imaginative interpretations that carry the unique signature of this community of artists. Watkins Family Hour does more than simply perform other people’s songs. They deliver the tunes in a way that makes room for them to live in a new way, that suggests these musicians are simply furthering the folk process.
There are soulful organ and piano interludes that mingle nicely with the mandolins, fiddles, guitars, and drums. The rhythm section of Heffington and Steinberg moves along with a steady pace, embracing each moment, providing a solid yet soulful foundation. Leisz’s pedal steel and Tench’s keys play off each other like an elegant dance. Throughout, Sara and Sean Watkins guide the heart of the proceedings with skill, craftsmanship, and soul. The album is an unpretentious work of simplicity and grace, full of performances that could have been birthed only by musicians who have played together for many years and are fully versed in each other’s instincts.
Sara captures the emotional center of Robert Earl Keen’s tome to his Texas youth, “Feeling Good Again,” to open the album. That’s followed in near-perfect contrast with a Harlan Howard honky-tonk classic, “Where I Ought to Be,” including a beautifully rendered vocal duet by Sara and Fiona Apple. Sean Watkins then re-imagines Roger Miller’s song “Not in Nottingham,” from the Disney animated film, Robin Hood. It is a gentle reading of an overlooked song by an underrated songwriter, paying tribute to its author and providing Sean Watkins a spotlight for some fine phrasing and vocal work.
One of the finest standouts is the band’s version of Lindsay Buckingham’s “Steal Your Heart Away,” originally recorded by Fleetwood Mac. It’s a pure splash of inspired, heartfelt energy with Sara Watkins’ gentle vocals balanced by an elegant interplay between Leisz’s steel guitar and Tench’s piano. The latter also provides the vocal on the Little Brother Montgomery’s Chicago blues standard, “Prescription for the Blues.” Bob Dylan’s obscure “Going, Going Gone,” from his overlooked Planet Waves album, receives a remarkable interpretation here, with Leisz taking the song into a country-blues territory even Dylan may not have imagined. The traditional “Hop High” maintains the artists’ well-established jamming and rhythmic standards. and Sara’s vocal gives Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” a fast pace with her brother gliding along on some fairly fine flat-picking. As is true across the entire album, her vocal carries extra sensitivity, which brings out the tragic nuance of the song.
On Heffington’s “King of the 12 Ounce Bottles,” we find the outer edge of a traditional-style honky-tonk tune, complete with saloon ambience and nasal vocal, with tongue placed firmly in cheek. “I originally recorded that with Lee Ving,” he says. “That was 20 years ago. Then, I made a point of going out and getting my last DUI. I haven’t had a drink since.”
Whether it’s the humor of Heffington’s tune or the gentle farewell of the final track, The Grateful Dead classic “Brokedown Palace,” Watkins Family Hour succeeds because it requires the musicians to perform in ways that have allowed the passage of time to resonate in their sound. It’s vintage without being old. It embodies an organic integrity that is carefully woven into each song. And at its sonic core, we find the actual Watkins family – a brother and sister whose parents encouraged them to find community with the mentor-musicians who hung out at that pizza place in California. As a result, stringband musicians from all walks of life have become their extended family.
For Sara and Sean Watkins, this music community is an everyday, moment-by-moment, living, breathing reality. As they tour and find their way to an even greater audience, their music has the power to transform strangers into a family, even if only for the length of an album or show. “I know it sounds like a cliché,” Sara Watkins explains, “the Family Hour is like we’re playing in a living room, but [this Watkins Family Hour album and tour is] a call to a larger living room with a taller stage. It’s a call to us all to join in with the music.”