Sara Watkins Comes to Appel Farm
When Sara Watkins was a little girl growing up in Southern California, her family had a Saturday-night tradition. They’d gather for dinner at a local pizza parlor — and catch the live bluegrass band that played there every week. “It just seemed normal to have people up there playing all kinds of songs,” the alt-country singer-songwriter recalled. “It seemed fun. So (my brother and I) started taking lessons.”
And she never looked back. Watkins may not be the most famous name playing at Saturday’s Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival in Elmer. But even at the tender age of 30, she’s one of the most accomplished.
At age 6, Watkins took up violin. At 8, she and her guitar-playing brother Sean formed their first band: a bluegrass act called Nickel Creek. Soon, the group was joining in those pizza-parlor concerts. And by the mid-2000s, Nickel Creek had a Top 20 album on the Billboard charts and a Grammy award.
Now, life as a solo artist seems just as good for Watkins. Her 2009 debut album just happened to be produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. And these days, Watkins — who has a sweet voice and a sound that’s alternately delicate and haunting — is promoting a sophomore record, Sun Midnight Sun, that features a duet with Fiona Apple and a guest appearance from Jackson Browne.
Oh, and the other day? Watkins shared a stage with Booker T. Jones, leader of 1960s soul icons and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Booker T. & The M.G.’s.
“That was definitely one of those moments where I could not believe,” Watkins says with excitement. “I was like, ‘Why is this happening? Why am I here? Why am I standing in the same space as this human? I get to play with people way out of my league far too often.”
Saturday, Watkins and her brother will play as a duo, sharing the bill with a wide array of country, folk, alt-rock and blues acts: the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Dawes, Jukebox The Ghost, Rodney Crowell, Cheryl Wheeler and more.
The fest — which benefits the Appel Farm Arts & Music Center, a non-profit organization that holds summer camps, educations programs and concerts year-round — is in its 24th year. And in an age when music festivals are as common as New Jersey traffic jams, Appel Farm artistic director Sean Timmons says this one stands out for a simple reason: The crowd can discover something new.
“The kind of music we do is not so much mainstream music,” Timmons says. “We’re supporting the kinds of artists that have careers and those that are emerging.”
The afternoon also features more than music. There will be 50 craft artists with work on display and a children’s village with a puppet theater, storytellers, jugglers and other activities. And it brings the arts to a remote section of the Garden State: rural Salem County.
“If you were thinking of a place to start a festival, you might not choose a place like this,” Timmons says. “It’s not close to any population centers. But it’s different. People are excited to see this caliber of artists playing in their backyard.”
Watkins is used to the unexpected. She may have grown up a California girl in the digital age of the 1980s, but she and her family spent their vacations traveling to bluegrass festivals.
“I was in third or fourth grade before I know who New Kids On The Block were or what rap was,” Watkins remembers. “I was so far removed. … But I liked how casual (bluegrass) was.”
With Nickel Creek, Watkins, her brother and mandolin player Chris Thile spent a decade expanding bluegrass with pop melodies and modern arrangements. They released six albums and garnered five Grammy nominations — including a win for Best Contemporary Folk Album for 2003’s sublimely cozy This Side — before splitting in 2007.
Recently, Thile has found success as a member of buzz-worthy alt-bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. But Watkins doesn’t rule out a Nickel Creek reunion.
“There’s always a chance,” she said. “It’s just a matter of timing. … We still see each other, we still love each other. It’s not off the table.”
Watkins’ new solo album is a bit darker than Nickel Creek. The first single, “When It Pleases You,” hisses with a fuzz-tone electric guitar.
“It was really exciting to make,” Watkins says of the record. “We just went into each song with sort of a fresh mindset and open ears to what they could become.”
As for the notable collaborations on the disc? That sprung from another interesting entry on Watkins’ musical resume. Every month for the last nine years, she and Sean have presented a show called the Watkins Family Hour at a Los Angeles club named Largo. Famous guests pop up all the time — including Ms. Apple, Mr. Browne and Booker T. There’s even a podcast.
“Having that gig is a really big part of my process,” Watkins explains. “For learning new cover songs, developing my taste, developing my songwriting. It’s a flexible, open environment.”
All that’s missing is the pizza.