The violin-playing co-founder of the bands Nickel Creek and I’m With Her is a native of Vista, where the Summergrass festival has been held since 2003
Sara Watkins is not the only winner of multiple Grammy Awards to perform and teach at Summergrass San Diego, the annual bluegrass music festival that was launched in 2003 on the grounds of Vista’s Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum. That’s just 15 minutes down the road from where she grew up in Vista.
Watkins shares those distinctions with fellow Vista native Dennis Caplinger, the multiple-Grammy-winning stringed-instrument master who died a year ago this week at the age of 58. Multi-instrumental wiz Stuart Duncan, who also grew up in Vista and is now on tour with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, has won four Grammys but will not be performing at this year’s festival.
That makes violinist-singer Watkins, a veteran solo artist and the co-founder of the band Nickel Creek, the only Vista native with multiple Grammys in the lineup for this year’s Summergrass, which runs Friday through Sunday. By coincidence, Friday is the same day her latest album with Watkins Family Hour will be released.
“Summergrass is in my hometown and it’s a wonderful event to bring your family to see music under the open skies,” said the now-Los Angeles-based Watkins, who first performed at the festival in 2005.
Her new album, “Watkins Family Hour, Vol. II,” is the third by the group she launched in 2002 with her singing and guitar-playing brother, Sean Watkins.
The 11-song release features such high-profile guests as Jackson Browne and Fiona Apple. It includes two classics that date back to the 1940s, “Tennessee Waltz” and “She Left Me Standing On the Mountain.” Both songs have been performed by various artists at Summergrass over the past two decades.
“Growing up in bluegrass and folk music, there is an innate respect for history,” Sara Watkins said, “and for where the music comes from and the people who played it — so much so that new things are often discounted and the older things are more revered.”
Her Summergrass performances Friday and Saturday will be as a member of John Moore & Friends, an all-star quintet that is making its public debut at the festival.
The new group is led by mandolinist, guitarist and fellow Vista native Moore. It also features Doobie Brothers’ bassist and singer John Cowan, guitar virtuoso Brad Davis, and Alison Krauss & Union Station banjo player, guitarist and singer Ron Block.
Mentors and protégés
Moore and Caplinger were key mentors in the 1980s and early ‘90s to the pre-teen Watkins, her brother, Sean, and mandolinist and singer Chris Thile, who teamed up in the trio Nickel Creek in 1989. The formation of John Moore & Friends was inspired by the passing of Caplinger, with whom Moore co-founded the band Bluegrass Etc. back in the 1970s.
“To be honest, I’m still reeling from Dennis’ death,” said Moore, 61, speaking from his home outside of Dove Creek in southwestern Colorado.
“This new group with Sara, John, Ron and Brad probably wouldn’t exist if Dennis was still alive, because I’d be playing at Summergrass this year with Dennis and Bluegrass Etc.”
Sean and Sara Watkins met and first teamed up with Thile at Bluegrass Etc.’s weekly Saturday performances at That Pizza Place in Carlsbad. It was there that Watkins made her public musical debut, age 4, singing the vintage murder ballad “Long Black Veil.”
Caplinger soon became Watkins’ violin teacher, while Moore taught Sean Watkins guitar and mandolin. Moore and Sara Watkins were among the musicians who performed a tribute concert in honor of Caplinger at last year’s edition of Summergrass.
“Bluegrass Etc. was the band that Sean, Chris and I grew up watching, learning from and taking lessons from,” said Sara Watkins, 42, speaking from a recent family visit to Virginia.
“It was incredibly meaningful to me to be at Summergrass last year to play with John Moore and other friends to memorialize Dennis and (bluegrass violin great) Byron Berline, who passed away last July. So, I was very grateful when John called and asked if I’d join him again this year. He has put together an incredible band and it will be great to get to play with a bunch of my heroes.”
John Moore & Friends is so new its members — who live in four different states — have yet to gather for a band photo. Moore has asked each of his bandmates to select music to perform at Summergrass, including both bluegrass favorites and songs from their respective bands and solo careers.
Might the Friends’ repertoire at Summergrass include “Tennessee Waltz” and “She Left Me Standing on the Mountain” from the new “Watkins Family Hour, Vol. II” album?
“I’m sure we’ll do ‘Tennessee Waltz’ because all of us already know that one!” said Moore, who estimates he has performed at 17 of the previous 18 editions of Summergrass.
Knowing songs and performing them in the spur of the moment has been a dual focus of Watkins Family Hour since its low-key inception in 2002 at an intimate Los Angeles music venue.
That was when Sara and Sean Watkins began playing a monthly residency as a duo at Largo. As word-of-mouth buzz grew, the siblings soon were being joined on stage by such musical pals as Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench, pedal-steel guitar great Greg Leisz, and others, including Nickel Creek co-founder Thile. Their repertoire deftly drew from different musical genres and eras that were all treated as equals.
“The Watkins Family Hour is really reminiscent of what I love about the bluegrass scene, with everybody sitting in and doing (song) arrangements on the fly,” Sara Watkins said during a joint 2015 Union-Tribune interview with her brother.
“That happens all the time in bluegrass, but not typically in pop and rock. But it was happening almost from the moment we began doing Watkins Family Hour, and it was really fun and so different, musically, for us. I was learning every time we did it.”
The fruits of their vibrant musical labors have thus far been documented on three Watkins Family Hour albums, including the newly released “Vol. II.”
The group’s stylistic breadth is readily demonstrated on “Vol. II.”
The album opens with a fresh take on “The Way I Feel,” a choice cut from the 1965 debut album by the English rock band The Zombies. It also features such varied selections as the Charlie Rich-penned “Thanks a Lot” (which was first recorded by Johnny Cash in 1959), “We Were Meant To Be Together” (a 2014 ode to transcendent love by San Diego-bred troubadour Tom Brosseau), and “Hypnotized” (a skittering 2021 song by the Oakland duo Tune-Yards that is delivered here in a far more languid manner).
The Watkinses and their musical guests put a distinctive stamp on each selection. Elliott Smith’s understated 1998 ballad “Pitseleh” is beefed up with a propulsive Bo Diddley beat and an echoing electric guitar part by Madison Cunningham. The Delmore Brothers’ bluegrass rave-up “She Left Me Standing on the Mountain” is slowed down and given a far more plaintive feel.
“When you are playing old country songs, or any song, you can do it as a tribute to the original or shake it up a little,” Sara Watkins noted. “It’s nice to revisit songs because you can come at them fresh.
“The value of the Family Hour is that it’s not about one thing. It’s about finding many things that fit together, bringing many musicians together and being part of a community we’re so grateful to know and call home. It’s about bringing a range of things together and finding the commonality and constant resonance each of them has.”