A nickel of bluegrass 

Nickel Creek crosses fluid boundaries of musical genre

First impressions can be funny. As the producer of Nickel Creek’s self-titled premier recording, Alison Krauss’ sound seems to saturate the disc. Since this is the first offering by the band, it makes you wonder what the disc would have sounded like if Krauss had not produced it. That is not to say they should have made a different disc. This one is good; no, it is excellent. Most of the songs on it are strong and well conceived. It has heartfelt joy and pathos and it sounds sincere and uncontrived. If the record falls down anywhere, it is in the lyrics. There are moments when the words cannot support the earnestness of the singer. The story line of one song in particular, about a lighthouse, is just a little too made up. But the mandolin accompaniment, the way the notes roll like waves, is outstanding. Overall, the group’s efforts have yielded a recording that displays finesse and just enough earthiness to remind you of Krauss’ own early recordings.

Since the late ’80s, fiddle player and vocalist Alison Krauss and her band Union Station have navigated a thoughtful balance between old time, bluegrass and modern country. Krauss’ rich blend of down-home twang and emotionally evocative lyrics has become a Nashville trademark. Some of her early recordings like “Dark Skies” and “Endless Highway” remain some of the prettiest songs in either the country or bluegrass canon. Though the blending of old and new music has been her stock in trade, Krauss’ transitions as a performer have been consistently conservative. She has not strayed far from the earthy traditions she grew up in. Her most experimental recording to date, a 1999 release called Forget About It, was neither country nor bluegrass. All the same, the disc was well thought out and nicely arranged. The members of Nickel Creek seem to have taken well to Krauss’ lessons in subtle artistry. Still, Krauss was not working with a blank canvas when she took the job of producing for Nickel Creek. The basic fire clearly belongs to the band.

Like Krauss, the members of Nickel Creek started out playing music as children and by their teens had become skilled performers. And, like Krauss and Union Station, Nickel Creek’s members are all first-rate musicians, able to cross over and blend musical boundaries with natural fluidity. The band members seem to have a respect (born of consummate skill) for the roots of their sound as well as a joyful openness to the creative possibilities their playing affords. The word through the grapevine is that the band’s live performances are an intriguing mix of bluegrass, old-time and country sounds that can springboard into improvisational explorations of other musical forms, from classical to rock ’n’ roll.

There is no such thing as a pure form of music anymore. Most artists attracting attention these days are working with some form of fusion: traditional and modern, multicultural and crossover genres. The adage that artistic genius consists of learning to play well first and then forgetting everything seems appropriate here. Nickel Creek’s music is obviously rooted in Appalachian tradition, but they play with a clean, upbeat sound that’s a far cry from the doleful melancholy that anchors even the most cheerful old-time songs. It is difficult to tell where a band will go from its first recording, but Nickel Creek is certainly off to a good start. Going to see them will tell you much more.

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