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Nickel Creek, from left, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins, reunited for a 25-city tour.

Time apart made for stronger Nickel Creek

– The trio of musicians in Nickel Creek grew up performing together, but ultimately it was the nearly seven years spent concentrating on their own separate musical interests that made returning to the stage together all the more exciting.

Fiddler Sara Watkins, her brother and guitarist Sean Watkins and mandolin player Chris Thile reunited last year in Los Angeles with the modest goal of a small 25-city tour to mark 25 years since the band formed and an EP of new songs. They wondered whether their fans would return nine years after their last record.

“It’s really easy to lose fans these days,” Sara Watkins said.

Instead, the reunion resulted in a full-length album, sold-out shows and an expanded tour, which includes stops in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on July 9 and Chicago on July 11. “A Dotted Line” debuted at No. 7 on the all-genre Billboard 200 this spring – a strong showing for a bluegrass album that settled the question of fan interest.

They built that fan base for more than a decade before stepping away. Starting out in southern California as pre-teens hitting the bluegrass circuit, the trio achieved a Grammy Award, two gold albums and popularity outside the genre by the time members reached their 20s.

But they took a break after realizing they couldn’t fit all their musical interests and pursuits under the Nickel Creek umbrella.

“I think we were kind of imposing the width and breadth of our individual musicianship on the project at all moments,” Thile said. “And no single project can stand that kind of intensity.”

During their hiatus following a 2007 farewell tour, Thile went on a prolific run, forming the Punch Brothers, winning a MacArthur Foundation grant, collaborating with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and writing classical music for the mandolin. The Watkins siblings went in separate directions, with Sara recording two solo albums and Sean working with two other bands, but the two also continued to perform together during regular shows in Los Angeles.

All the years collaborating with other musicians or performing on their own helped to create a stronger, more focused sound. For Sara Watkins, the time apart from her bandmates helped her return with much stronger vocals than on previous Nickel Creek albums.

“Having to sing, being the only singer every night at my shows, and having to front each song and try to live through each song every night when you were performing it, it took me a new strength,” Watkins said.

Watkins said they haven’t made any long-term plans for the band, but Sean said they will always find a home with Nickel Creek.

“I think we’ll always sort of be a band,” he said. “It’s kind of a short and sweet little summer of getting to do these songs and these new songs. That’s all we’re thinking about now, I think.”

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