One day in my sophomore year of high school, my friend Isabella and I met for tea and breakfast burritos in our high school's cafeteria. Isabella always loved weird tea, the kind that looked like sticks and smelled like rich soil. We steeped our tea, and she asked me if I had heard of a pop bluegrass band called Nickel Creek. I hadn't, and I said so.
She pulled out her Discman, I put on the headphones, and she played me "When You Come Back Down" off their self-titled 2000 release. It was emotional and sweet with a leading mandolin dripping like rain. It sounded like every crush I had ever had in my Colorado childhood—earnest, impossibly yearning, and just a little cheesy.
Goddamn it. I loved Nickel Creek. I consumed their catalog voraciously. And since bluegrass shows were some of the only all-ages shows available in Colorado, I saw them three times in high school. I was on their message boards, and I followed their blog posts when blogs were still a nascent replacement for chat rooms and a precursor of later social media.
On This Side, Nickel Creek cover the song "Spit on a Stranger." At the time, I had no idea it was a cover. I got their sheet-music songbook, determined to play every tune despite my clumsy fingers. Above "Spit on a Stranger" was the credit "Stephen Malkmus." I googled the name, and there was Pavement.
I visited my friends who had moved to California, one of my first trips on my own. They drove me to an Oakland record store, where I bought Pavement's Terror Twilight, and we drove through the warm West Coast night with the roof of their parents' convertible down. I lay in the back seat with no seat belt, and we turned up "Spit on a Stranger," and I breathed in the sweet air and felt known and new.
What I Think Now: Pavement are cool. Nickel Creek—despite the fact that the Watkins siblings and Chris Thile are from-birth virtuosos who could play any sad-boy indie band out the fucking door—are demonstrably not. I genuinely love Pavement, and I found them all on my own, with an assist from Isabella and our morning burritos. But for a long time, I didn't tell people that's how I heard about them. You can guess why.
It isn't lost on me that this self-defeating mentality is described in "Spit on a Stranger" itself—a song about running toward what fits no matter what.
Whatever you need,
However so slight,
Whenever it's real,
Whenever it's right.
That song was very different in Pavement's hands. It tripped over itself, tumbling into its sincerity almost inadvertently. It was coy and subtle, its earnestness stark instead of overstated.
Nickel Creek's cover is all sweetness and light—impeccable bluegrass riffs that manage to gloss over the tune's original delicacy, hanging too many ornaments on a thin branch. But I loved it. I loved it because when I entered the song at 15, I was weighted down with affectation. And when I drifted into the original at 17, I was just starting to grasp nuance. It's why I didn't tell people how I got there. I somehow assumed everyone started where I ended up. In fact, that same expectation is baked into the marketing strategy of lots of good art: A select few things are good—and if you don't start with them, you'll be lost forever.
But you know who else Nickel Creek helped me find, via their blog, openers, and other live covers? Red House Painters, Radiohead, Jason Molina, and Andrew Bird.
I don't really love listening to Nickel Creek anymore. Realizing that really bummed me out, actually. Just... did they have to have so many ballads?
But this is a journey of many small steps. And I'm glad that I had people along the way to put the headphones on my ears and let me figure it out for myself.
Was It Worth It: Yes.