Neither of the opening-night acts for the Ryman Auditorium’s summer bluegrass series could be regarded as inhabiting the genre’s mainstream. Nickel Creek uses bluegrass as a starting point for achieving a broader acoustic sound. Vince Gill relies on the traditional style as a touchstone for his country music.
Thursday night (June 21), the double bill in the historic Nashville venue played to a capacity audience of over 2,000. Series ticketholders will see Del McCoury , Ralph Stanley , Jim & Jesse and Ricky Skaggs , among others, during the six-week run. If the audience (which included members of SHeDAISY ) minded the non-traditional start, they didn’t show it. Both acts received standing ovations and demands for repeat encores.
In their 20s, Nickel Creek — fiddler Sara Watkins, mandolinist Chris Thile and guitarist Sean Watkins, with help from bassist Derek Jones — blend bluegrass with Celtic, pop, classical and jazz styles. They’ve played Keith Whitley ‘s bluegrass gospel tune, “You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain,” since they were teens in Southern California, but the song, with Sara Watkins singing lead, got a jazzy treatment Thursday night. Jones took a bass solo and Sean Watkins punched effects pedals on the floor to alter the sound of his acoustic guitar.
More into body surfing, kick boxing and running than NASCAR or rodeo, the trio has been embraced both by CMT’s audience and by jam-band fans of Phish and Dave Matthews. A prodigy grown into his prime, Thile becomes the focal point of the band on stage. Like mandolinist Sam Bush, a key influence, he takes a kinetic approach to playing, stamping his feet in rhythm, moving his upper body forward and back, bobbing his head, mugging with bandmates. “We’re so freakin’ happy to be here,” he said, his actions reinforcing the mood.
Nickel Creek’s short set included two instrumentals, “Ode to a Butterfly” and Sean Watkins’ “Ferdinand the Bull.” In his breathy tenor — reminiscent of pop’s Ron Sexsmith or Josh Rouse — Thile sang “The Lighthouse’s Tale,” “When You Come Back Down” and “The Fox” (in which he also spat out the rapid-fire lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”).
“Thank you for clapping enough,” Thile said as the group returned to the stage for their first encore, “In the House of Tom Bombadil.” They closed with “Let It Fall,” the title track from Sean Watkins’ solo album.
“You gotta know I’m comfortable in my own skin to come out on mandolin after that little brat,” Gill said following his opening number, “Crying Holy Unto the Lord.” An accomplished guitarist, Gill played mandolin throughout his set, accompanied by regular sideman Jeff White on guitar and harmony vocals, and by three members of Del McCoury’s band: fiddler Jason Carter, banjo player Robbie McCoury and upright bassist Mike Bub.
For Gill, the Ryman performance marked a return to his roots. Leaving his native Oklahoma at 18, he moved to Louisville to play bluegrass with Bluegrass Alliance. Dressed casually in jeans and hiking boots, his shirttail out, he warned that he might forget the words to some of the songs, and he did occasionally — even searching for the first line of his own composition, “High Lonesome Sound” — but it never mattered.
To fill out his bluegrass repertoire, Gill adapted a few of his country songs including “Oklahoma Borderline,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain” “Key to Life” and his most recent success, “Feels Like Love.” He relied on bluegrass harmony structure, he said, when he wrote “When I Call Your Name,” intending it first as a bluegrass song. He made the song a country number, Gill admitted, by “playing it really, really, really, really slow.” “You oughta cut it again,” one audience member shouted after Gill and his band finished the bluegrass arrangement.
Gill dedicated the uptempo bluegrass standard “Pig in a Pen,” to his wife, Amy Grant, who watched the show from the front row with Gill’s daughter, Jenny. The members of Nickel Creek sat in the wings of the stage throughout his set.
Jesse Winchester’s “Tennessee Blues,” recorded by Gill at a 1975 Nashville session with Bluegrass Alliance, proved to be a highlight, and Earl Scruggs ‘ “Flint Hill Special” gave McCoury and the rest of the band a further chance to shine on their instruments.
Nickel Creek joined Gill for the evening’s final encores, Jimmy Martin ‘s “Walking Shoes” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” “OK,” Gill said before “Walking Shoes,” “if this is really fast, I don’t want a solo.” But he took one — and did well.