Sara Watkins: Young In All the Wrong Ways

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Sara Watkins
Young in All the Wrong Ways
(New West)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Those expecting Sara Watkins to reprise her role in the bluegrass/country Nickel Creek, a band she co-founded before she was in her teens, at this point realize that’s not going to happen. Throughout two previous solo albums, Watkins has gradually ditched, or at least put aside, her mountain music roots for a singer/songwriter, indie-folk attitude more in line with the work of Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, her band mates in the I’m With Her project, than the fiddle oriented work that helped push Nickel Creek to stardom. But the fact that she recorded this disc without a label or manager supporting her, allowed a sense of freedom that infuses these ten tracks with an independent vibe only hinted at on her previous work.

Certainly the crunchy rock guitars that drive the opening title track push Watkins in a tougher direction than she has ever been on album. And when she declares in that song’s verse that “I’ve gone the miles and God knows I’ve got the fight,” she’s stating unequivocally that her life is making a break with the past. That spirit of moving towards a different path is echoed in the darkly acoustic “Invisible,” especially when she sings “So I’ll continue down this way though I can’t say where it will lead” with resigned determination.

Similarly, the music here is more diffuse and moody with songs such as “Like New Year’s Day” winding their way through nearly five minutes without much in the way of a chorus. Producer/multi-instrumentalist/Punch Brother member Gabe Witcher keeps the sound open and even though there are about a dozen backing musicians including two other Punch Brothers, T-Bone Burnett go-to drummer Jay Bellerose and Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on keys, these songs revel in a casual sparseness, not to be confused with starkness. When the collective hits a groove in the folk/bluesy “Without a Word,” led by Watkins’ supple, sympathetic vocals, the effect is sweetly galvanizing.

Watkins makes only a few concessions to her past, most noticeably on the sad yet lively bar room swagger of the Dolly Parton styled “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free,” about a crumbling marriage; a track that finds the singer picking up her fiddle for one of the few instances here.

Fans know anything Watkins touches will reflect the class, talent and sophistication she has shown on her previous projects. And even if this generally melancholy collection takes a few spins to sink in, Watkins has delivered a deeply personal and moving album infused with maturity and unflinching truth in both its lyrics and overall approach.