From the New York Times online
Bluegrass That Can Twang
and Be Cool, Too
By TERRY TEACHOUT
BLUEGRASS couldn't be cool, right? Backwoods banjo pickers singing about love, death, Mom and Jesus in tight tenor voices what could be less hip? That's why the success of the soundtrack album to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" came as such a surprise. For reasons known only to themselves, Joel and Ethan Coen, who are not exactly famous for their warmth or sincerity, chose to accompany their cinematic retelling of Homer's "Odyssey" with the utterly earnest sounds of bluegrass, gospel and "old-timey" country. All at once, large numbers of jaded ironists (not to mention George Clooney fans) found themselves downing a stiff dose of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, Ralph Stanley and the Cox Family, and loving it. Weeks after the film vanished from first-run theaters, the soundtrack remains one of amazon.com's best- selling pop CD's.
Bluegrass has had a few previous moments in the pop-culture sun, most notably in 1967, when Flatt and Scruggs's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was featured in "Bonnie and Clyde," but its current resurgence runs deeper and wider than that. Indeed, the House that Bill Monroe Built seems to be undergoing something of a stylistic remodeling, and anyone curious about where it is headed next need only listen to the postmodern, polystylistic sounds of the three cheerful prodigies who call themselves Nickel Creek.
At 19, 20 and 24, the fiddler Sara Watkins, the mandolinist Chris Thile and the guitarist Sean Watkins (Sara and Sean are brother and sister) are young and cute enough to guest-star in an episode of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." Friendly, giggly and almost alarmingly uncynical, they speak the it's- like-you-know patois of Southern California, where they grew up together and started playing bluegrass as children. If you were to run into them on a crosstown bus, you wouldn't guess that they play in a musical idiom closely associated with the rural South. But, then, their sophisticated sound isn't exactly rural and neither are many of the fans who have bought their debut album, "Nickel Creek."
"We play boundaryless music," Mr. Thile said in an interview during a recent visit to New York, and his bandmates nodded in emphatic agreement.
Like Ms. Krauss, the angelic-voiced fiddler who produced "Nickel Creek," they blend hard-charging bluegrass with sweetly sung acoustic pop; like Edgar Meyer, the protean bassist-composer who moves from bluegrass to Bach and back again, they write carefully structured instrumental pieces that owe as much to classical music as to country. Onstage, they ignite this volatile mixture with a high-energy performance style reminiscent of rock 'n' roll. The pencil-thin Mr. Thile chops wildly at his amplified mandolin, flapping and flailing like the tail of a kite in a high wind, flanked by the serene, apple-cheeked Ms. Watkins, who bobs with the beat, and her older brother, a no-nonsense fellow who stands stock still while he plays in the sober-sided manner of John Entwistle of the Who.
Nickel Creek made its long-overdue New York debut last month, appearing at the Bottom Line as part of a mixed bill. Accompanied by Derek Jones, an older bassist who looked pleasantly amused to find himself in the company of such rambunctious youngsters, the trio stole the show with a short but potent set. The high point of the evening was a free-form jam on "The Fox," a traditional folk ballad into which they stirred such unlikely ingredients as a hip-hop version of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and a greased-lightning rendering of the first movement of Bach's E Major Violin Partita, played on the mandolin by Mr. Thile. When it was all over, the packed house cheered, whistled and generally carried on like the congregation at a revival meeting.
Old-fashioned bluegrass is not in any danger of becoming extinct. Veterans like Del McCoury, the peerless balladeer whose keening, hacksaw-sharp voice can be heard on the soundtrack of Kenneth Lonergan's recent film "You Can Count on Me," continue to preach the unrevised gospel according to Monroe before fervent crowds; younger artists of similar inclination, among them the thrillingly bold singer and mandolinist Rhonda Vincent, are finding their own ways of keeping the tradition green. Middle- aged country-music stars like Dolly Parton and Ricky Skaggs, appalled by the extent to which navel-ringed Barbie dolls now monopolize the airwaves with plasticized pseudo-country, have even started performing pure, unadulterated bluegrass, and making money doing it.
Still, there is far more to bluegrass today than neo-traditionalism, however vital. The classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma scored a huge crossover success by collaborating with Mr. Meyer and the fiddler Mark O'Connor on "Appalachia Waltz" and "Appalachian Journey." "Appalachia Waltz" could also be heard earlier this month at the New York State Theater, where it was used to accompany a dance of the same name made for the New York City Ballet by Miriam Mahdaviani.
Then there are the members of Nickel Creek, who have caught the "O Brother" wave and appear to be riding it to fame and fortune. Their year-old album, which received two Grammy nominations, is still selling steadily, and their videos are shown on Country Music Television; they recently performed on the influential television series "Austin City Limits" and were collectively included in a group of five "musical innovators" featured this week in Time magazine. Needless to say, it doesn't hurt that they are photogenic, but it is their adventurous yet accessible music, not their fresh-faced good looks, that is drawing crowds and selling CD's.
Strictly speaking, Nickel Creek's polystylistic approach to bluegrass is not unique. Traditional bluegrass is itself a fusion music, constructed by Bill Monroe in the late 30's out of country, gospel, jazz and the blues, and since his time it has assimilated a variety of other sources. But the vocabulary Monroe forged was so distinctive that it has survived to this day essentially unchanged. The twangy front line of fiddle, mandolin and banjo, the high-keyed, eerily melancholy vocals, the songs of faith and sorrow: all these are central to its musical identity. While later instrumentalists, including Mr. Meyer, the mandolinist David Grisman and the banjo players Alison Brown and Bιla Fleck, have moved in other directions usually toward jazz the mainstream of bluegrass has continued to flow undisturbed along the course first charted by Monroe six decades ago.
In part because of this stylistic conservatism, bluegrass never found a mass audience, or an especially young one, until Ms. Krauss, a fiddle virtuoso from Illinois, began a decade ago to work elements of contemporary pop into such meticulously produced albums as "Every Time You Say Goodbye" and "So Long So Wrong." Her hauntingly silvery singing voice lacked the regional accent and granite-hard surface that had repelled many younger listeners, and she soon became the top-selling artist in the history of bluegrass.