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FOR KIDS : Down-Home Sound : If their knee-slapping music doesn't grab attention, the ages of this award-laden bluegrass band certainly will.

July 23, 1993|HEATHER W. MORGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Heather W. Morgan is a regular contributor to Valley Life

If members of the Nickel Creek Band have their way, there won't be a toe that ain't a-tapping and a heart that ain't a-smiling after their performance Saturday at Pages Books for Children and Young Adults.

Ever since this bluegrass band officially organized three years ago, they've been wowing audiences and accumulating awards at music festivals throughout the country.

And if their knee-slapping music doesn't grab attention, their youth certainly does.

The group features singer and fiddler Sara Watkins, 11; Sean Watkins, 16, who plays mandolin and guitar; Chris Thile, 12, who sings and plays mandolin, and "the old guy," bassist Scott Thile, who is also Chris' father.

"I'm really just a background fixture in the band," Thile said. "They select, arrange and sing all their own music."

The story of the Nickel Creek Band is as pure and simple as the music it plays.

Years ago, members of the Thile and Watkins families, who live in Idyllwild and Vista, respectively, began to frequent a pizza joint in Carlsbad that offered the live music of Bluegrass, Etc., a well-known bluegrass group featuring mandolin player John Moore. It wasn't long before Thile noticed that Chris, then 2, was banging out rhythms on his high chair as the band performed.

By the time Chris was 5, he was constantly asking his father to play the mandolin. Thile, however, kept stalling, thinking that his son might be too young to learn the instrument.

"One day, Chris and I were at a friend's house, where I was jamming, and there was an old mandolin hanging on the wall," said Thile, who has also played jazz bass professionally. "Chris asked if he could play it. It was amazing. He just started picking out tunes. I couldn't believe it."

Within a week, Chris had taught himself the basics. Thile decided to have his son play for Moore, who recognized the boy's talent and began tutoring him.

About the same time, the Watkins children, Sara and Sean, were equally as fascinated with the infectious down-home rhythms of bluegrass. They, too, began learning to play instruments and, in 1990, the children teamed up to perform at their first festival in San Diego. They've been traveling ever since and recently completed their first tape, "Little Cowpoke" on Choo Choo Records.

What, exactly, is bluegrass music?

"Well, we do play a broad range of styles," Thile said. "You might call it acoustic folk music. But of course the easiest way to describe bluegrass to someone who doesn't know much about it is that it's like the theme music from 'The Beverly Hillbillies.' "

For Saturday's concert at the bookstore, the Nickel Creek Band will perform more traditional Western folk songs, in keeping with the store's summer focus on the "Great American West."

"My hope is that this will be something the entire family can enjoy," said Darlene Daniel, owner of Pages Books, which offers frequent workshops, story hours and concerts.

But good, clean musical fun isn't the only thing that Daniel hopes that the audience will take home.

"There's something truly exceptional about these young people," she said. "They have accomplished a level of expertise in their field by hard work and determination. And that says more than words. It's a lesson by example in self-respect and confidence."

WHERE AND WHEN

What: The Nickel Creek Band at Pages Books for Children and Young Adults, 18399 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana.

Hours: 11 a.m. Saturday.

Price: Non-refundable $2 per person fee may be applied to the purchase of the group's "Little Cowpoke" cassette.

Call: (818) 342-6657.

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