Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder: Nickel Creek Returns To The Ryman

Nickel Creek at the Ryman Auditorium (4/18/14) - photo by Daniel MullinsFriday, April 18 was a long-time coming for me, and a sold out crowd at the Ryman Auditorium. After nearly seven years, the “indefinite hiatus” was over. Nickel Creek was back.

At the first of two sold out shows at the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the crowd was abuzz with excitement. They had been anxiously awaiting this moment. Nickel Creek fans in attendance included musical peers such as Rob Ickes and Claire Lynch, and fellow child prodigies such as Sarah Jarosz and Ryan Holladay. Most of the fans were sharing stories of when they first heard or saw the band. One fan was boasting seeing Nickel Creek an impressive eighteen times, while others reminisced on seeing them as freshmen in high school.

The evening began with music from The Secret Sisters, an up-and-coming Americana act. Their brand of old school rock and roll with a country twang delivered with tight family harmony, would have some call them “The Everly Sisters.” Although playing great original material, The Secret Sisters have a classic sound. “We love depressing music,” quipped one of the sisters, gleefully. Originals such as the foot-tappping Rattle My Bones, the country-flavored Let There Be Lonely, and the murderous Iuka, showcased the girls’ premiere ability to write new songs in the old vein. It’s no wonder that these Alabama sisters have been gaining so much notoriety since their 2010 debut. Their latest album, Put The Needle Down, was released April 15, and is available on iTunes.

Crowd at the Ryman Auditorium for Nickel Creek (4/18/14) - photo by Daniel MullinsDuring intermission, the audience’s anticipation grew louder as showtime approached. The crowd was noticeably younger and more diverse than that of your average bluegrass festival. Hipsters, yuppies, and baby boomers were crammed into the ancient pews of the historic Ryman collectively awaiting a moment seven years in the making.

Nickel Creek wasted no time. They hit the ground running with their new single, Destination, and the crowd was instantly on their feet erupting in cheers. The hit single from the band’s latest release, A Dotted Line, is already becoming a fan favorite. It’s some of Sara Watkins’ most powerful vocal work, and she sings the song with a hint of Adele in her voice. Her singing has done nothing but grow stronger in the past seven years.

The band seamlessly transitioned from their newest hits to one of their oldest. Reaching the Billboard Country Top 50 over twelve years ago, The Lighthouse’s Tale is still as poignant today as it was in the Spring of ’02.

The blend of old favorites and new compositions made this concert a joy for both the band and the audience. The fans went crazy during Nickel Creek classics such as This Side and When In Rome, and listened intently during the band’s new material from A Dotted Line. The crowd’s mix of enthusiasm and respect caused Thile to quip, “You guys are so much fun to play for.”

Sean Watkins at the Ryman Auditorium with Nickel Creek (4/18/14) - photo by Daniel MullinsSean Watkins shed a little more light on one of A Dotted Line‘s most interesting tracks, 21st of May. He recalled the Harold Camping Judgement Day scare from May 21, 2011. Seeing the billboards and hearing the chatter on the night of May 20th, Watkins thought, “I might as well write one last song.” The result is the apocalyptic 21st of May. Although a brand new tune, it feels as if it could have been included on Tony Rice’s Church Street Blues album. The thoughtful lyrics and beautiful guitar work made for a captivating performance.

One of everyone’s favorite moments was when Nickel Creek performed what has become their signature song. Thile decided to preface the song with an interesting story. When traveling across the country as Nickel Creek, the band had received many requests for this song, but usually not by its real name. Rather than calling the song by its actual title, which is found at the end of the chorus and repeated several times throughout the song, fans referred to this song by a word used only twice in this Nickel Creek favorite. Fans would shout out “Play Angel Song!” at shows, which the band hated hearing at first. Eventually, they referred to Angel Song amongst themselves as a joke, but the term eventually caught on and they wrote Angel Song on their Ryman setlist to refer to When You Come Back Down. A beautiful song played at both weddings and funerals, loved by fans young and old, it was obvious that this was one song which Nickel Creek fans had missed hearing during the seven year hiatus.

Nickel Creek  at the Ryman Auditorium (4/18/14) - photo by Daniel MullinsAt one point in the evening, Chris Thile exclaimed, “It’s time, folks.” The opening notes of the band’s most experimental new song, Hayloft, rolled across the Ryman Auditorium stage. Filled with energy, Hayloft was a lot of fun to experience live. At one point, Sara Watkins was singing with so much fervor, she was waving her fiddle bow in the air like a sword! The band attacked this song as if to prove that “Yes, we can do it on stage.”

The band went from one of their most progressive numbers to one of their most traditional. As soon as The Fox began, the audience was on their feet clapping in unison. The Ryman became the host of the biggest party in Music City that night, as the packed house sang along and danced to the band’s final number. They had the crowd right where they wanted them. Had they told the audience to burn down the Mother Church of Country Music, they might have obeyed. After soaking it in and taking a bow, the band left the stage.

Nickel Creek  at the Ryman Auditorium (4/18/14) - photo by Daniel Mullins

Of course, there was no way Nickel Creek was going to get away that easily. After what felt like an eternity, the band graciously returned for an encore as the place erupted in cheers.

A highlight of the night was when Chris, Sara, and Sean squeezed in close together to have fun playing. The childlike wonder of picking with friends on their faces, one couldn’t help but wonder if this is what it looked like twenty-five years ago when Nickel Creek was born and acoustic music was changed forever.

Mark Schatz gets his clog on with Nickel Creek  at the Ryman Auditorium (4/18/14) - photo by Daniel MullinsMark Schatz then rejoined the gang. Having provided incredible bass work all evening (including some with a bow), he had taken his break to change into his dancing shoes. Mark’s hallmark clogging tore down the house!

Nickel Creek’s final song was the closing track from the new album. Sara’s beautiful vocals on Where Is Love Now? completely captivated the audience. A fitting ending to a joyous evening.

If anyone was wondering Where Is Love Now?, it’s in the hearts of music lovers who are thrilled to have one of the most prolific acoustic groups of all-time back in action.


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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.