Country Jukebox Jury – Nickel Creek and Billy Strings

Nickel Creek – Live from the Fox Theatre

Crashing in at number one on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart, this is Nickel Creek with a show from 2014 at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, their first show ever in the Californian city documented on their first ever live album. It’s available via Bandcamp for $10 or as a double vinyl set. This means I get to talk about the pride of Carlsbad, California, where I’ve been lucky to spend some weeks with family in the last 20 years. Guitarist Sean and fiddler Sara Watkins met gangly mandolin prodigy Chris Thile in the 1990s and as children the trio played folk clubs and festivals while building an original set of songs.

After the success of O Brother Where Art Thou’s folksy bluegrass soundtrack, Nickel Creek slid into the slipstream. I first heard of them in the 2000s when their song When In Rome was played on UK radio; their third album Why Should The Fire Die was produced by a guy who had worked with Good Charlotte, topping the Bluegrass Album chart and made number 17 on the overall album chart in the US.

This Side, produced by my other favourite Bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, included songs written by Stephen Malkmus of Pavement (Spit on a Stranger) and the mighty duo Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick (Hanging by a Thread), as well as some Chris Thile instrumentals like Smoothie Song and Sean Watkins’ fine tune This Side, which has a majestic middle section.

The band then went off to pursue other projects – The Watkins Family Hour and The Punch Brothers notably, as well as Chris’ mandolin transcriptions of Bach pieces – before reuniting for 2014’s A Dotted Line, which is the album they were promoting at the Fox Theatre. It made the album top 10, topped the folk and bluegrass charts and spawned the magnificent song Destination and the apocalyptic anthem 21st of May. I fondly remember hearing their set from the Newport Folk Festival.

Their live show includes 22 tracks including wedding song Rest of My Life, farewell song Somebody More Like You, eerie Lighthouse’s Tale and, of course, When In Rome, Reasons Why, This Side, the pulsating You Don’t Know What’s Going On and the wonderful arrangement of the trad. arr. banger The Fox. Non-vocal instrumentals Elephant in the Corn, Scotch & Chocolate and Ode to a Butterfly are also present and correct here.

The set ends with a gorgeous cover of a song called Where Is Love Now, which the trio also performed as part of Live From Here, the now extinct show on US public radio which Chris hosted for a few years. Check out the Youtube video to be spellbound.

I like that the band are a sort of supergroup, who all sing, take solos and harmonise. Their original songs are rich in melody and vocal variation. I am a Creek Freak and I hope you will be too. 4/5

Billy Strings – Home

The album which Nickel Creek displaced at number one on the Bluegrass Chart is by a Michigan-born virtuoso who has been critically and commercially successful. Willian Apostol aka Billy Strings introduced himself to UK audiences over Country Music Week with a four-song performance live from the Station Inn in Nashville. Sitting on a high stool, Billy showcased his tremendous ability as a rootsy performer steeped in American music. He reminded me of Charlie Worsham with his charming voice and pickin’ abilities and I would love to hear Billy and Charlie duel with guitars or banjos.

Billy, who was nominated for Emerging Act of the Year at the postponed Americana Music Awards 2020, released his second full-length album Home in September 2019, on which he wrote and produced all 14 tracks. Hours before the release, the International Bluegrass Music Association named him New Artist and Guitar Player of the year, on the strength of his debut album Turmoil & Tinfoil.  It was his third solo release after an EP and an album. He must be irked that the festival season has been wiped out, meaning he wouldn’t play the folk and bluegrass crowds who would love this new slant on a genre as old as the Appalachian hills.

The album opens with an atmospheric thirty seconds before banjo and guitar come in with something that, as always to my ears, sounds like Nickel Creek. Taking Water has all the elements of a bluegrass song: stomping 4/4 beat, fiddle and harmonies on the chorus which has the lyric ‘this ole boy’s taking water’.

Running (‘as fast as I can go…from all the things I know’) is aptly titled, whizzing by a breakneck pace and making me think how much prep goes into making the fingers dextrous enough to play semiquavers on a mandolin. Hollow Heart is another toe-tapper with some double-stopped mandolin solos, and you will be amazed by the solo near the end of Everything’s The Same.

Rather than any genre, Billy Strings sounds like Billy Strings. At the album’s centre are two seven-minute songs which give rise to the label ‘psychedelic bluegrass’. Away From the Mire’s first part is traditionally acoustic, but the instrumental second half includes an electric guitar solo slathered in production, which marry well with the acoustic banjo, mandolin, fiddle and acoustic guitar. I hope rock fans give this track a try. It is followed by the title track, which is a meditation on how ‘home is a heartache’ set to tabla drums and chromatic harmonies.

Long Forgotten Dream puts echo on Billy’s vocal, while Highway Hypnosis gets very Sgt Pepper-era Beatles in the mid-section before recapping with some fine harmonies with Ronnie McCoury, son of the mighty bluegrass legend Del.

Enough To Leave slows the pace and even a simple tune is laden with backing vocal harmonies from the band. This would be an arms-around-shoulders festival moment, and it’s a good way into Billy’s album if the tablas have put you off. Ditto Love Like Me, a bluegrass love song with ringing guitars in dropped tunings, and Guitar Peace, which is pure atmosphere and should be picked up by a movie soundtrack supervisor.

The album ends with Freedom, where male backing vocals accompany Billy’s high tenor. ‘I want the road, I want the crown,’ Billy sings. Critics have given him a crown and it’s up to audiences to remember their love of bluegrass around 2000 to include Billy in their musical diet. 4/5 for Home.

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