Sara Watkins’ Music Represents the Potential of the Californian Melting Pot

Walk through an animal shelter, and you’re likely to come across a bunch of mutts. The purebreds all have homes, deemed more regal and appropriate than dogs conceived in the heat of passion in an alley between their parents’ owners’ yards. They’re the result of a perceived recklessness, as if no one took the time to think through how they might turn out.

But mutts, in their mystery of origin, can be many times more beautiful — inside and out — than the predictable purebreds. This is the story of America, the story of Los Angeles, and the story of Sara Watkins.

Watkins is just 35, but her career has already spanned a quarter-century. She was still losing teeth and watching cartoons when she debuted as the prodigious fiddle player for the hit bluegrass band Nickel Creek, which also featured her brother, Sean, and Chris Thile, the latter of whom just took over Prairie Home Companion hosting duties from Garrison Keillor.

Bluegrass, fiddle, Prairie Home — these are rock-ribbed touchstones of heartland America that point to the purest of cultural pedigrees. But Watkins grew up in southern California, where the mutts are always mating.

“It was much more watered down in the West,” she says of her upbringing in Vista, California, casting what’s normally a pejorative in a positive light. “California blends all these influences together. The band we saw every week, Bluegrass Etc, they’d play old cowboy songs and Beatles songs and Beach Boys and the Band. Basically anything they could play on their instruments, they would play. That was our norm, and it helped us start with the doors of possibility wide open.”

Since Nickel Creek disbanded in 2007 (notwithstanding a 2014 reunion album), Watkins has put out three superb solo LPs, unified only by their unpredictability. She still peppers her sets and records with bluegrass ditties that show that her chops as a traditional fiddler haven’t diminished a bit. (She recently became the first female to win Instrumentalist of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremony.) But Watkins seems equally as enamored nowadays of instruments she can strum.

“I would like to continue to learn guitar,” she says. “It’s pretty new to me, and I’m really loving it. If I could feel like I could play everything I want to play on guitar — improvise and stuff — that’d be really satisfying.”

This portends a woman who wants to rock and, sure enough, Watkins’ latest record, Young in All the Wrong Ways, is largely a hip-mover, anchored by the titular track and the full-throated “Move Me,” which finds Watkins exploring her upper register in a manner that more staid artists wouldn’t dare attempt.

“I think, for me, the risk is part of the fun,” she says. “Singing higher, some people do it flawlessly. Until I get there, I still want to sing the song.”

Oftentimes, those songs aren’t even her own. At a September show in Portland, Oregon, she performed tracks by the Zombies, Linda Ronstadt, John Hartford, and the Grateful Dead, and her searing lead vocal on “Your Bright Baby Blues” was the highlight of a recent star-studded Jackson Browne tribute album.

Over the course of her career, Watkins has occasionally collaborated with Browne, perhaps the quintessential LA singer-songwriter whose legacy is continued by the likes of Watkins and Dawes. In fact, Watkins and Browne will hit the road together this coming spring, and he sang harmony on one of her best songs, “You and Me.” Fittingly, that track is nowhere near as straightforward as its title suggests.

“My songs are not about one thing,” Watkins explains. “There are tens or hundreds of pieces that go into a three- or four-minute song. It’s an impression of many things. ‘You and Me’ is largely about how we adjust ourselves throughout our lives. Sometimes you look back and remember who you were with this person at that time of your life — friendships, romantic relationships, a city even. It’s about celebrating those moments that have passed.”

Sara Watkins is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Wednesday, December 7.
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Mike Seely
Contact: Mike Seely