Twenty years ago this week, thirteen-year-old me walked into the Virgin Records Megastore in New York City, not knowing I would be leaving with the most important cd of my life.
I had come with some of my peers on an annual east coast trip my middle school arranged for 8th graders over spring break. We’d perused all manner of America’s number 1 hits, all of which we were criminally under-appreciative. We’d seen the Liberty Bell, and been mostly somber at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and yawned our way through Aida on Broadway (couldn’t it at least have been The Lion King?)
So now the chaperones were loosening the leash and letting us spend some of our hard-earned cash on things we actually wanted instead of mini-replicas of the Declaration of Independence to make our moms happy, and had taken us to one of the largest record stores in the world.
I’d never been anywhere so painfully hip in my whole life. Vaulted, industrial ceilings and gleaming white floors made the store seem larger than life, as if we’d been swallowed whole. Rows upon rows of shiny plastic cd cases lay out before us, carefully divided by genre. The coolest stuff was at the front, of course. I had started to make my way toward the back of the store where the bluegrass would surely be stowed in dusty bins, if they had any at all.
I stopped short about halfway back on the first floor. There, in all its glory, stood a display tower containing just what I was looking for. I walked around the circular structure, full of familiar faces and fiddles and banjos galore. I had forgotten that the world was still clinging to the vestiges of the ‘O Brother, Where Are Thou?’ fad that had brought bluegrass into the mainstream, if only to dip its toes in, have a cool drink and then mosey on back into obscurity. But I owe my happiness to that quirky flick: it’s how I found the musical love of my life.
I’d known of Nickel Creek, vaguely. I’d actually bought their cd, unheard, for a friend’s birthday the week before, because my cousins had recommended it. But somehow they spoke to me at that moment, among the racks of the giant record store. Their cd was right at eye level, sandwiched between Dan Tyminski and Ricky Skaggs, three young faces in a sea of… not-so-young faces. They were all orange. They were serious. There were frosted tips going on. So I reached for it again. I perused the track listing – butterflies, okay. Lighthouses, sure. Woods and pastures, cuckoos and foxes, all good things. What sold me – a die-hard ‘Lord of the Rings’ nerd – was the mention of one Tom Bombadil. Twenty dollars later and it was mine.
It would make a good story to say I tore it open and borrowed a friend’s Discman to listen to it that very same day, but I didn’t. I carted it around the rest of the trip and brought it back home to Oregon, where I’d have the necessary tools to remove the multilevel packaging those things were always buried in. Cellophane seams so tight they almost don’t exist; the labeled sticker holding the right side closed, the invisible case-length sticker holding the top edge closed, then trying to pry a never-before-opened jewel case apart at just the right speed to avoid sending the disc flying across the room and scratching it before you’ve even heard one note.
But a few notes was all it took.
From the first trilling tones of Chris Thile’s mandolin on ‘Ode to a Butterfly,’ I was totally hooked. I listened to that cd day in and day out. I couldn’t get enough of the complexity, the intensity, the sheer talent of those songs. Chris and the brother-sister duo Sean and Sara Watkins had crafted the perfect blend of thoughtful solos, masterful three-part harmonies, and instrumental arrangements that kept you on your toes. Every time I listened it was new. To this day, my mind will wander in different ways while I’m listening to that album and I’ll rejoin the music at a random phrase and it’ll just hit me in a way I hadn’t heard it before. They took bluegrass and elevated it to heights I’d never experienced before.
I probably drove my family mad – I uploaded the songs to the slow-downer on our desktop and learned every single song, every single note on fiddle, gradually speeding it up until I could just (barely) keep up with them in real time. My school friends didn’t get it. The first time I brought some of my own music to listen to while we hung out, I put on Nickel Creek. About halfway through the first song one of my friends asked, “Is there going to be any singing?” They were shocked that anyone listened to songs without words. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that most of my cds were entirely instrumental. Everyone else just asked me if I meant “Nickelback.” WTF. Not even close.
My parents got me tickets to see Nickel Creek later that year, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland. I couldn’t believe it. For their encore, they turned off the sound system, and came down to the very front of the stage. They invited folks to come down to the front to hear, and I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, packed like sardines, necks craning, just a few feet from some of the most talented musicians of all time, listening to “When You Come Back Down.” That song still gives me chills.
That was it for me – for many years I ate, breathed and slept music. I learned mandolin. I earned enough money (mostly from busking, which is how I paid for my trip in the first place) to buy my first real fiddle, whom I named “Watkins.” I still have it!
Every year, I couldn’t wait for summer to arrive. Every few weekends my dad and I would pack up the minivan and head across the state for some bluegrass festival or other. Nickel Creek was not exactly standard fare in the bluegrass festival world, and I got plenty of ribbing for trying to bust jams with their complicated tunes. Without them, though, I have no idea if I would have kept going with bluegrass through my teenage years.
Of course, as with any first love, my relationship with Nickel Creek hasn’t been constant. Their second album, ‘This Side,’ was a let down compared to the first, and for a while their direction and mine were not the same. They moved away from instrumental tunes as I increasingly foraged for more. I dropped my faith and became distrustful of religion; they continued to reference it in their music and sign Jesus fish with their backstage autographs. But I was a loyal customer who never missed a cd, regardless of how many songs I liked on it. I was devastated when, five years later, they announced that they were taking a break.
The hiatus only lasted seven years, but it felt agonizingly long, tempered only by Chris Thile’s new venture with his band the Punch Brothers. When they reconvened in 2014 for their 25th anniversary, both the band and I returned to the relationship as changed entities. Side note: bands, unlike couples, are apparently allowed to celebrate these sorts of occasions even after long separations. But they seemed less restless in their trio configuration, and I’d mellowed in my taste, applying a less rigorous standard for musical enjoyment.
For their 30-year reunion/20-year retrospection of that first album of theirs, we were aligned once again. We’d gone out into the world. We’d traveled. We’d had major heartbreak, crises of faith. They’d had kids. We were neck-deep in a global pandemic. But they came (online) and they played. They played the whole album, top to bottom. And I listened. Together, we (and, yeah, a few thousand other people) went back to the beginning.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that spring day all those years ago, walking into that store. I’ve been trying to listen to the album with fresh ears again – an almost impossible task, of course. What is the same, however, is the thrill of those first notes. And now? Who knows. Hopefully another twenty years of music and mayhem. I cannot possibly overstate how much of an impact you’ve had on my life. Thanks Chris, Sara, and Sean for everything. ❤