2008 Ranking: New Entry
Sara Watkins began her career as the lone female member of popular bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. In the years since that band’s first hiatus, she has become a formidable solo artist in her own right.
Watkins grew up in Santa Monica, California, part of a musical family that included her brother, Sean Watkins. By age ten, both Watkins had already hooked up with Chris Thile, and were soon performing alongside Thile’s father, Scott, in the earliest version of Nickel Creek. As the young musicians honed their craft, they became sensations on the bluegrass festival circuit. Their notoriety eventually led to a recording contract with Sugar Hill Records, where Alison Krauss served as the producer for their first two albums. The original pressing of their Sugar Hill debut, Nickel Creek, included Thile’s father on the cover, but it was subsequently reissued with just the young trio on the front, as Scott retired from the band in 2000.
Soon after, Nickel Creek rode the wave of the O Brother roots revival. Their debut album went platinum on the strength of three videos that were popular on CMT, one of which (“Reasons Why”) had Sara singing lead. Their second album, This Side, went gold and won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. On their third set, the analog-recorded Why Should the Fire Die?, Sara Watkins had greater input as a songwriter, including her first solo composition, “Anthony.”
As Nickel Creek went on hiatus, Sara Watkins kicked off her solo career in earnest, signing with Nonesuch Records. Former Led Zeppelin guitarist John Paul Jones produced her 2008 debut album, Sara Watkins, which received strong critical notices. Another set followed in 2012, Sun Midnight Sun, which featured guest appearances by Fiona Apple and Jackson Browne, among others. Nickel Creek reunited for A Dotted Line in 2014, and she collaborated with her brother again the following year on their set, Watkins Family Hour.
Watkins received the award for Instrumentalist of the Year at the 2016 Americana Music Honors & Awards, the first woman in the show’s history to win in that category. The same year, she released her first set for New West Records, Young in All the Wrong Ways, earned her some of the best reviews of her career, and became her first solo set to chart on the Billboard 200. Since 2015, Watkins has also participated in the collaborative project I’m With Her, which is a contemporary folk female supergroup consisting of Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. Her newest trio released their full-length debut, See You Around, in early 2018.
- Nickel Creek (Nickel Creek, 2000)
- This Side (Nickel Creek, 2002)
- Sun Midnight Sun (2012)
- Young in All the Wrong Ways (2016)
- Reasons Why (Nickel Creek), 2001
- Speak (Nickel Creek), 2003
- Move Me, 2016
- Americana Music Honors & Awards
- Instrumentalist of the Year, 2016
- Grammy Awards
- Best Contemporary Folk Album
- This Side, 2003
- Best Contemporary Folk Album
- International Bluegrass Music Awards
- Emerging Artist of the Year, 2000
- Instrumental Artist of the Year, 2001
Next: #94. Wilma Lee Cooper
Previous: #96. Rhiannon Giddens