Forever Young

Sara Watkins gets back to her roots at Taft Theatre

Photo: Sara Warkins, performing at Taft Theatre on Aug. 12

By L. Kent Wolgamott

Sara Watkins is best known for her work in Nickel Creek, the bluegrass trio she co-founded as a teenager. But you won’t hear bluegrass or much of her fiddle on “Young In All The Wrong Ways,” her latest album. And you won’t hear much of either in her live show as well.

In large part, that’s because “Young In All The Wrong Ways” is an expansive turn by Watkins away from mountain music to singer-songwriter indie-folk — and that record is being showcased in her live performances with her trio.

“It (fiddle) just didn’t seem to be an important part of getting these songs across,” Watkins said. “The fiddle can be a very strong quality, a strong voice. This is the first album completely made up of songs I wrote or co-wrote. I wrote them on guitar. That seems to be the main element to getting these songs across. There’s some fiddle on it. But not much.”

That musical change is reflected lyrically as well, as Watkins, now 35, reflects on break ups and looking back at life.

“I feel that this album I had a lot more to say,” she said. “I think it’s covering new territory for me. That’s one of my goals. Nobody wants to repeat themselves. The best we can do as human is grow and adapt and continue to see the world as it is today, so it’s not the same perspective as he had 10 years ago.”

That idea is at the root of the album-opening title cut, a crunching rocker about changes that inevitably lead to reflection and a break with the past.

“I think we all feel we have been young at different stages in our lives,” Watkins said. “It’s something you can feel as a teenager going into high school from junior high, then you’re only looking back a few months. That happens when you move from an old town to a new town, an old job to a new one, an old relationship.”

“Young In All The Wrong Ways” is the rocker on a record that also contains a straight-up honky-tonker in “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free,” a five-minute long, moody trip to the desert in “Like New Year’s Day” and the singer/songwriter Americana gem, “Say So.”

“I wouldn’t want an album that’s all the same kind of thing,” Watkins said. “The styles of the songs weren’t picked as a goal to shake things up. They fit together. They feel very right and very me. I think every album for me has felt very right for me at that time. I don’t think it’s reasonable to make an album that’s the be-al and end-all of your career. Maybe you can look back at that, but you can’t do it at the time.”

That process started in 2008, when Watkins released her solo debut.

“That was a home base album for me,” she said. “I was setting the tone of where I’m from, but not pushing any boundaries. The second album was much more adventurous. That felt perfect for me at that time. This album feels that way now…. When people see the live show, it’s probably easier to connect the dots between the albums.”

That live performance is a showcase for Watkins’ distinctive amalgam of indie pop, rock, folk and country — a grouping that could only be delivered with superb musicianship and sensitive performance by Watkins, who plays ukulele, acoustic guitar and, yes, some fiddle. She’s joined by David Garza, the fine Austin-based singer-songwriter, on electric and acoustic guitars, bass and piano and Michael Libramento, who plays drums with his right hand and feet and, with his left hand, a keyboard that handles the bass parts of most of the songs.

When she hasn’t been writing or touring with her solo material or playing “reunion” shows with Nickel Creek, Watkins has been collaborating with other artists, sometimes as a guest or a one-off, sometimes in a support role, as she played for The Decemberists in 2011

“I think collaborations can be incredibly inspiring,” she said. “I really enjoy switching my role. I enjoy being in a band where it is equal parts collaboration and I enjoy being a support person in a side role as I was with The Decemberists. I get to play this really fun tour with a band I love and just show up for the sound check and the shows..I got to play different instruments, didn’t have to worry about logistics. That was so joyful.

“After that that kind of collaboration, it gives me the personal energy to put into my next featured solo project. It’s inspiring to see others approaches. You can lead an audience the way Colin Meloy and The Decemberists do, which is a totally different way than Jackson Browne does it or Nickel Creek ever did it.”

Speaking of Nickel Creek, Watkins said that trio will never fade away, no matter how much attention she devotes to her solo career.

“It’ll continue to pop up,” she said. “We had so much fun on the last tour a couple years ago. We’ve shared it for so many years and grown up together. There’s no reason to stop. There’s no reason to ever say never again.”

Sara Watkins plays Saturday, Aug. 12 at Taft Theatre, 317 E. 5th St. in Cincinnati. Show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $30 in advance. For more information, please call 513.232.6220 or visit tafttheatre.org.

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L Kent Wolgamott
Reach DCP freelance writer L. Kent Wolgamott at LKentWolgamott@DaytonCityPaper.com

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