PREVIEW: Nickel Creek
Friends since they were kids, and brought together by a love of bluegrass music, Nickel Creek tossed out the country music rule book and crashed the hat-band country party that is Nashville with a stunning self-titled debut album.

And haven't looked back since.

Mandolinist Chris Thile phoned in during a tour stop in Colorado. The young trio, headed to Portland for a Sept. 7 show at the Schnitz, are enjoying an unbridled breakout season, riding high on the strength of that debut CD, the release in early August of their second project, "This Side," and accolades that include Grammy and Country Music Association nominations. All for little trio that emerged from what Thile calls "a hip community of folk musicians on a lot of caffeine."

Thile and partners Sara and Sean Watkins , the sister-brother duo who are the other two-thirds of the band, exploded onto the mainstream country scene with two breakout hits, "The Lighthouse's Tale," and the follow up, "When You Come Back Down."

The trio that Time magazine named as one of five Music Innovators for the Millennium, received two Grammy nominations for that project, went on to sell 750,000 records , and became the darlings of the country music - not to mention folk, bluegrass and acoustic music - scene.

The just-released "This Side," is an ambitious effort that shows the group as willing as ever to keep evolving in a genre that tends to look to the past. Says Thile, "We were pushing the envelope the first time, and now we're just pushing it further, as opposed to playing it safe after the first one. That's how a record needs to be. I think you need to challenge yourself, and you need to focus on what you've been learning, and what growth you've experienced."

The spark for "This Side," Thile says, was that fans accepted the first record. "We felt encouraged, that I guess what we're doing is worthwhile, and now let's really concentrate and figure out what's possible as a band and what three people can create. The goal, of course, is to bring a little tiny bit of something new to the field. All the experimentation and growth and the creative wringing out of ourselves is in effort to extract something good, something new."

They've done that in spades. This year seemed to bring the world to a new appreciation of traditional bluegrass music with the "O, Brother, Where Are Thou?" soundtrack and subsequent success of the Down From the Mountain tour. Nickel Creek emerges as the progeny of that rich American music heritage, but ones bent on leading the genre into new territory. "We're in the business of looking forward," he says. "But we know all those people on 'O Brother,' and it's been great to hang out and have everybody feel like part of something that's actually a pop success."

Nickel Creek seems to have flown in the face of the glossy production and posturing of Nashville, and it's been a little overwhelming "The success is extremely surprising," Thile says. "We always thought we had a wild card shot at something that made a splash of some kind. But we always thought we were overly optimistic. It's exceeding our wildest expectations. The main thing that I love is just the idea of having a big audience to write songs for and play shows for. At shows people are hanging on every breath, on every note. That's the greatest feeling in the world, to have people hear what you have to say."

Nickel Creek
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Sept. 7, 2002
8 p.m.
$22.50, Fastixx outlets