Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek fame was 12 years old in 1989 when he and his sister, fiddler Sara Watkins, and mandolin player Chris Thile co-founded their Americana band in Southern California.
“They were both 8,” Watkins says. “We were very young. And there wasn’t exactly a hotbed for bluegrass where we grew up, but there was a cool little scene around San Diego.”
Growing up not far from that Golden State metropolis, the youngsters eventually had enough material to perform at local festivals, and Nickel Creek went on to release six albums between 1993 and 2006, breaking out in 2000 with a platinum-selling, self-titled album produced by Alison Krauss.
“It was really fun,” Watkins says. “When we started out, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We just wanted to make music with our friends.”
It’s a sentiment he shares today with progressive bluegrass trio The Bee Eaters — fiddle champions Tristan and Tashina Clarridge and hammer dulcimer wizard Simon Chrisman.
Watkins headed toward a solo career right after Nickel Creek’s 25th anniversary tour in 2014.
“I had made three solo records up to that point, but I’d never toured behind them because I didn’t have the time,” he says. “I released another called “All I Do is Lie” in 2014. After that, I started playing with Tristan, Tashina and Simon a bunch more. We played a couple of festivals, and I taught a few times at their music camps in Big Sur and Mt. Shasta. The camps are great. We spend a lot of time learning songs and playing together. We always have a lot of fun.”
Watkins and The Bee Eaters will perform live at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31, at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland. Fiddle and mandolin duo Rainy and the Rattlesnakes open the show. Tickets are $22 in advance and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com. Tickets will be $25 at the door. See grizzlypeakwinery.com or call 541-482-5700.
The foursome played Trinity Alps Performing Arts Center — where the Clarridges were reunited with fans who remember them as children — on March 25, and they have a show set for Arcata Playhouse before playing at Grizzly Peak.
“We’re always looking for excuses to play together, and this is going to be a fun little Northern California jaunt,” Watkins says. “We’re working on the material we know and working up some new material.”
The Bee Eaters played on Watkins’ last record, “What to Fear,” released in 2016. Last fall, the four recorded six songs for an EP that is slated for full album status to be released in late summer or early fall.
“We speak a shared musical dialect from listening to so many of the same musicians,” says Tristan Clarridge, a five-time Grand National Fiddle Champion and pioneering cellist. “We enjoyed the music Sean made with Nickel Creek and learned a lot from it.
“Collectively, we listen to the new generation of progressive bluegrass artists, like Bela Fleck. We all grew up on those records. So it’s fun when you sit down to play and there’s that shared vocabulary as a starting place,” he says.
“An area of interest The Bee Eaters share with Sean is the subtle details that can happen by prioritizing rhythmic integrity,” Clarridge says. “Simon is really a percussionist on the hammer dulcimer, and Sean is one of my favorite rhythm players.
“There are others in the progressive string music scene who put more focus on areas other than strong rhythmic solidity. But that’s the thing we’re interested in and trying to develop. It’s fun to play with Sean and look up to how solid that groove is. It makes things happen. I can play things I didn’t know I could play when the rhythm feels really good.
“The music is a nice intersection because The Bee Eaters play mostly instrumental, and Sean’s music is mostly songs. There’s a lot of complementing that can be done. We’ve enjoyed the flow of collaboration, bringing the instrumental and lyrical sides together, during these last few concerts.”
Watkins and The Bee Eaters will cover a lot of ground at the Grizzly Peak concert.
“We’re playing the new material we’ve recorded and a couple of covers, including Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ and Warren Zevon’s ‘Suzie Lightning,’ ” Watkins says. “It’s just a nice mix of my songs with The Bee Eaters. It’s incredibly beautiful and complex.
“We grew up playing different forms of traditional music that are just different branches of the same tree, which is American acoustic music. That’s what informs our sound.”