By Greg Cahill | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Ask fiddler, singer, bandleader, and songwriter Sara Watkins to describe the Watkins Family Hour—the enduring bluegrass collective she co-founded 20 years ago with her guitar-playing brother, Sean—and the 41-year-old bluegrass prodigy boils it down to one word: collaboration. It’s a process that began three decades ago with Nickel Creek, the red-hot teen Americana trio that featured the Watkins siblings and mandolinist Chris Thile (now the host of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion), which racked up platinum sales and garnered a half dozen Grammy Awards. But it also lies at the heart of the shared musical experiences staged monthly by the Watkins siblings at the Largo Theater in Los Angeles’ trendy Silver Lake District.
“The Watkins Family Hour is all about collaboration,” she says during a phone interview from her L.A. home, fresh from a gig at the Susquehanna Folk Festival in York, Pennsylvania. “It started as a way to play with people because we had been touring with Nickel Creek, which was focused on recording and promoting albums. We were in a groove around that style of recording and touring that material. Sean and I were looking for opportunities to get back to the thing that makes musicians want to be musicians, playing songs that we grew up with and the natural environment of standing around onstage with other musicians and finding common ground. Just playing together and being excited and inspired by what the other people bring to the music. We wanted a place to let our hair down and play without anything being promoted.”
These days, Watkins is sharing that collaborative process with a wider audience through a new recording, The Watkins Family Hour, Vol. II (Thirty Tigers), and an extensive national tour. The album, the follow-up to the duo’s eponymous 2015 debut and the pandemic-era duo Brother Sister, features a roster of longtime and newfound Family Hour collaborators, including Fiona Apple, Jackson Browne, Benmont Tench (a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Gaby Moreno, Madison Cunningham, Lucius, Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show, and pop craftsman and producer Jon Brion, among others. The project provided an opportunity to stretch musically while staying true to the Watkins’ bluegrass roots.
“I had a couple of ‘fiddle moments’ with Gabe Witcher, who is another longtime friend,” says Watkins, who came of age during the late ’90s and early-2000s, a time that nurtured a generation of gifted fiddle kids. “We grew up together at bluegrass festivals when we were eight or ten. I reconnected with Gabe about 20 years ago when we started doing the Family Hour. It was nice to have him playing twin fiddles with me on the new album on ‘Standing on a Mountain’ with Willie Watson and the Texas swing of ‘Remember Me, I’m the One Who Loves You.’ It was good to have that era represented.”
The album also showcases 25-year-old singer and songwriter Madison Cunningham and the stellar 40-year-old Guatemalan singer, songwriter, and guitarist Gaby Moreno. “I first met Maddy [Cunningham] when she was 16—eight or so years ago. We have written together, and she’s been a frequent guest [at the Largo]. I first heard Gaby on the radio in Los Angeles and was just blown away! She’s also a frequent guest on the Family Hour. It’s been really incredible to learn her songs and collaborate. She’s an incredibly strong singer and a broad musician—a real powerhouse.”
Watkins grew up in the San Diego suburb of Vista, California, and debuted with the progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek at the age of eight. As a child, she studied with fiddler Dennis Caplinger, a two-time Grammy winner and a member of the San Diego–based band Bluegrass Etc. “My brother, Sean, was taking piano lessons and the teacher’s son was John Moore from Bluegrass Etc.,” Watkins says. “They played every Saturday night at a pizza parlor near our home. They were great players and teachers—that’s how I met Dennis. I really enjoyed how normal it seemed that, especially at this pizza parlor, people in the audience who just knew a few songs would be invited to go up and sing one of their three favorites. It just seemed like, oh, this is something that people do. They sing. They play. They clap. They share music together. It didn’t seem like an extraordinary lifestyle. It just seemed normal. That’s always been my favorite part of music, the expanse of space it can fill. It’s valuable as a personal joy and love you have to sing around the house or to play a guitar or a piano, or trying to figure out a bass line you love on a record. That’s just as important on a human level as it is when music is allowed to be your full vocation and you can focus on it and expand your knowledge of it. It’s a wonderful thing for music to be a part of your life on any level.”
She later studied with Byron Berline, an alumnus of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and a member of the influential late-’60s bluegrass act Dillard & Clark (that’s Berline playing fiddle on the 1968 Rolling Stones track “Country Honk”). Berline lived in Van Nuys and was a fixture on the bluegrass festival circuit, especially Falls Camp in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California and the Calico Ghost Town in Barstow, California, as well as Arizona. “Byron was a person who would arrange to have jams for the kids,” Watkins recalls. “We’d get together at his campsite. It would be Byron and a couple of other players and six or seven kids playing fiddle tunes, learning jam etiquette, and passing around songs. He treated us like grown-ups. He talked to us like real people. He talked about the instruments and gave us pointers and showed us what he was doing. He sold me my first real fiddle, a three-quarter size fiddle. I still have it. It still sounds great.
“One of the richest parts of growing up in this musical culture is learning from your mentors and getting to play with them as peers,” she adds. “It’s a real privilege to get to learn from the people that you admire and for them to show enough respect to teach you some things. It’s a really special culture.”
In 2002, around the time Nickel Creek released the pop-oriented This Side, its Grammy-winning fourth album (produced by Alison Krauss), Watkins drifted into Café Largo, an intimate dinner club on Fairfax Avenue in downtown L.A. that seated just 100 patrons. What made Largo special was the tight-knit community of musicians and music enthusiasts that frequented the shows—Largo attracted world-class talent, including such celebrated indie-rock and alt-folk artists as Suzanne Vega, Peter Himmelman, and Grant Lee Buffalo. The New York Times heralded the club as “a place of poetry in a land of pictures.” Singer, guitarist, and songwriter Grant Lee Phillips (the founder of Grant Lee Buffalo), who had portrayed the Town Troubadour on the hit TV show Gilmore Girls, inadvertently became an inspiration for the Watkins Family Hour. “I was so transfixed by his performances,” Watkins says, “the way he performs and his vocal technique, the way his voice moves through the melodies.”
Over the years, the owner, Mark Flanagan, had developed a trust with the musicians and such well-known comedians as Sarah Silverman and Patton Oswalt who performed there. “He had an open-door policy that we had never experienced before,” Watkins says of Flanagan. “That, combined with his personal taste, nurtured a creative eco-system that is an incredible privilege to be a part of.”
Encouraged by Phillips, the Watkins siblings soon began hosting their own monthly shows at Largo, building a following for their low-key, old-school bluegrass shows and an ever-rotating cast of players that included Phillips, Tench, Browne, Apple, and Dawes. A decade ago, Largo moved to its current location within the Coronet Theater, into a larger 260-seat space with an elevated stage and curtain, professional sound and lighting, and a dressing room. The Watkins Family Hour tagged along. “When Flanagan moved to the new location, that was a chance for us to step up our game and become less casual,” Watkins says. “We started holding rehearsals and planned a little more, just to respect the space. But, it being Largo, there are incredible opportunities to experiment, which the audience enjoys.
“The culture that was established at Largo through our no-taping policy allowed us all to not worry about making mistakes or the off-hand things that can happen, but instead to really relish them and remember what it’s like to perform ‘in the moment’ for the people in the room. That was an exciting and natural place to be. We tried to capture that on this album by inviting people who had been part of the Family Hour over the years.”
That creative freedom can be found on the opening track of the new album: the gorgeous “The Way I Feel Inside” is a 1960s-era pop song by the British Invasion band the Zombies arranged by Tench and covered by Lucius, an American indie-pop band led by vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. “There’s a flow to the Family Hour. It changes over time depending on what needs to be shaken up,” Watkins says. “The band changes in terms of consistency and depending on what musicians are in town and who’s on tour, so every night is different because we have different guests and we’re working up new songs all the time. So there’s a certain amount of ‘newness’ to every show. But, despite that, we settle into certain rhythms whenever there are band members around for a few months or even a year. After a while, we’ll usually pare it down and experiment with different combinations of people. There’s always an evolution happening.”
What Sara Watkins Plays
Watkins’ main fiddle is an anonymous English-made violin purchased in 2004 at Ifshin Violins, when it was in Berkeley, California. “I desperately needed a new fiddle,” she explains. “I spent a day playing violins and walked out with that one.” She owns a Paul Martin Siefried bow, built in Port Townsend, Washington, but mostly uses an anonymous bow gifted to her by musician Stuart Duncan. She uses an L.R. Baggs pickup in the studio and rehearsal, and a DPA miniature condenser microphone onstage. “It has a nice natural tone,” she says. Watkins uses D’Addario solid steel-core Preludes and medium-tension Ascente strings.