Nickel Creek performs two shows during Spoleto Festival USA | Photo provided

Nickel Creek wrote much of its long-awaited new album, Celebrants, during continuing Covid restrictions in 2021. The title, opening track elevates social interaction as a kind of divine experience that should be better appreciated when it returns. Fittingly, it’s the song that opens each performance on the band’s current tour.

“We wanted to be able to start the shows with this spirit of, ‘My God, it’s so good to see you,’” Sara Watkins said. “It had been so long since we’d been able to tour together, and we wanted to acknowledge that, and also just acknowledge that being together in general was something people were looking forward to at that time.”

The famed Americana trio will take the stage at Cistern Yard for two performances at Spoleto Festival USA. The stop is part of its Celebrants tour, following the March 24 album release.

Spiritual themes are woven throughout the “Celebrants” track and other Nickel Creek songs. The three members were raised in the evangelical church but have moved away from the beliefs of that tradition. This is often called “deconstructing,” a phenomenon that Watkins said was common among people who grew up during the Purity culture trend of the 1990s and 2000s, when some Christian movements strongly encouraged abstinence and piety for teenagers. 

“We’ve been working to find our own way through spirituality, what to keep and what to let go of,” Watkins said. “That’s a process that so many people go through, I hope. I think it’s a super healthy thing to do.”

Jocelyn Neal, professor of music and director of the Bluegrass Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Nickel Creek’s spirituality reflects the diversity of the Americana scene. This loosely defined genre offered a home to country and folk artists who were not experiencing mainstream radio success at the turn of the century. 

Mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins, her brother, first started playing together in 1989 when none of them was older than 12. 

Nickel Creek’s star rose in 2000 with the popularity of its self-titled album, riding a wave of Americana, folk and alt-country music. Though the group often played at bluegrass venues, its music defied easy definition. 

The band has never discussed genre, Sara Watkins said.

“When you’re making the music, you’re very much on the inside,” she said. “You’re not thinking about perception, you’re thinking about the experience of what you want to make. You’re building it from the inside.”

Celebrants, an hour-long rumination on connection, divinity and fame, is the band’s first studio album in nine years. It’s a continuation in Nickel Creek’s genre-bending streak, featuring Thile’s more recent jazz sensibilities and Sean Watkins’s experiences in the indie-rock scene. 

For their part, the Grammy Awards don’t seem certain of what to call Nickel Creek’s music. The band has earned nominations in contemporary folk, bluegrass, country and Americana, as well as a win for best contemporary folk album in 2002. 

Now as then, the instruments are acoustic, but the music often features rhythms and harmonies not typical to bluegrass or its progressive subgenres.

“Nickel Creek, like so many other great bands today, isn’t necessarily going to fulfill those kinds of genre-based expectations,” Neal said. 

Nickel Creek has taken periodic hiatuses since 2007, when its members first stepped away from the band to pursue other projects. 

In the years since, each member of the trio has become a prolific collaborator. Thile formed the Punch Brothers (with whom he performed at Spoleto last year) and hosted Minnesota Public Radio’s “Live From Here.” Sara Watkins has played fiddle for a variety of artists, including John Mayer and Phoebe Bridgers. And Sean Watkins has written and played for Family Fiction and the supergroup Works Progress Administration.

After its first hiatus, though, Nickel Creek’s name recognition faded even as individual members built followings through other projects. Their reunion projects, some 30 years after the band’s original formation, are free from commercial or mainstream concerns.

“We’ve never had the burden of being so popular that we’ve had to sustain something,” Watkins said. “Not anything like a pop star has, where they have to do follow-ups. I think we all feel very grateful to not have to play the game like that.”

IF YOU PLAN TO GO:  Nickel Creek has sold out its May 31 and June 1 shows  at the Cistern Yard at the College of Charleston.

Desi Gillespie is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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