"I was this annoying little kid who would come up to my favorite mandolin players that were playing at the festival and go, 'Can I play your mandolin mister?,'" explains Chris Thile, 21. "You know … They'd be like, 'What?' And a lot of times they'd let me, and then I'd go for it. And they'd be like 'Aha!'"
Thile was six years old when he met another pint-sized fiddler in cowboy boots named Sara Watkins and her 10-year-old brother, Sean. Soon, they were calling themselves Nickel Creek — after an old bluegrass song — and setting out for any music festival they could get their parents to drive them to.
Chris' dad, Scott Thile, was their chauffeur and bass player. To this day, he says he is their number one fan.
"I definitely have felt submissive to Chris' musicianship … from day one," says Scott. "I saw him as my musical superior."
Chris' father wasn't Nickel Creek's only fan. Alison Kraus was another young star who became a sweet-sounding role model for Chris, Sara, 20, and Sean, 25.
"She [was] probably 17 or 18. I forget how it happen but somehow we ended up jamming with her," says Sean. "It was like she was young and she was the best."
Chris adds, "She kind of broke the ice, I think, in a lot of ways for commercial acceptance in bluegrass. She's older than me, but only 10 years, instead of like 20 or 30 years old. And I think it helped me realize that a career in music didn't have to be this far away thing."
The feeling of admiration was mutual.
"I remember when he started singing I just went 'Oh Wow. This is something completely different'," says Kraus. "You know I was always in awe of the mandolin playing and their musicianship. But when the singing happened, it's like there's this whole other part, this whole other emotional, non-technical incredibly feeling wonderful part of his talent … he's the most talented person I've ever seen in my life."
Soon Nickel Creek was playing the festival circuit and then they went into the recording studio. All this couldn't have come at a better time.
Kraus believes Nickel Creek is taking acoustic music and bluegrass instruments into the next level for a new audience.
BUILDING A FAN BASE
The album from the movie "O' Brother, Where Art Thou?" was last year's number one selling soundtrack. Its performers have drawn sell-out crowds across the country — even in the most un-country of places.
But this is more than one album creating a musical renaissance. The fact is, bluegrass is back. Fans just can't get enough of it.
"It's great music. It runs the gamut of all the age groups from little children to old people like us," laughed Scott.
Colorado's Rocky Grass festival is one of hundreds of bluegrass festivals all over the world. And it is not just fans that can't get enough of it. Chris, Sean, and Sara say they wouldn't miss these festivals for the world.
"The people here are a little more traditional minded. But they seem to like what we're doing," says Sean. "And we seem to be grabbing people who don't normally listen to bluegrass and so I feel like we're kind of a bridge of sorts."
People seem to more than just casually like their music. Nickel Creek received two Grammy nominations and held a Top 20 spot on Billboard's Country Album chart in the past.
"Coming to these festivals is so inspiring because we get to see all these musicians that we've looked up to over the years. And I remember why I love this music so much," says Sara.
Chris adds, "It kinda feels cool in a way on one level just have so little life experience compared to these people. You know, they know so much more about everything than I do."
But Chris is confident in his mandolin skills. "I happen to know a lot more about that one thing than they do. And so much that I get to teach it to them," he explains.
No small accomplishment when the other teachers are legendary performers likes David Grisman, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall and Ronnie McCurry.
"One thing I learned from my dad is that you're always learning, always getting better, and you're always reaching," says Chris.
But if Chris Thile and Nickel Creek have a long way to go, they've cone a long way too. The International Bluegrass Music Association has named them Instrumental Group of the Year and Chris Madolin Player of the Year — the youngest ever.
Nickel Creek will release another album soon and Alison Krauss is now more than a fan — she's also Nickel Creek's producer.