Siblings Sara and Sean Watkins didn't mean to start a new band, record an album, or go on tour. Sometimes, these things just happen.
Over the past decade, when the two weren't on tour with the Grammy award-winning bluegrass group Nickel Creek, they've held residency in a club called the Largo, hosting a show called the Watkins Family Hour. These performances—anchored by Sean and Sara and including whichever musician friends are free to stop by—are more intimate; folksy jam sessions that call to mind campfire sing-alongs. That is, if the average camper could sing like Fiona Apple.
"The intent of the Family Hour in the very beginning was to have a home gig that was a low-pressure excuse to just get out and play with your friends," Sara Watkins tells the Source while at home in California between tour stops. "Something to do when you're away from your day job, basically, when you're away from your day gig."
As it turns out, she and her brother have some pretty talented friends. In addition to Ms. Apple, they are often joined by Family Hour regulars Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Works Progress Administration), Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing), Don Heffington (a drummer who's worked with the likes of Bob Dylan and Big Mama Thronton), and Grammy award-winning guitarist Greg Leisz (who's played with just about everyone). And that talent isn't lost on Sara Watkins.
"We're really fortunate to be able to fall into that community of Largo and be introduced to a lot of these great players who would just be around and game to play a song or two," she says. "I feel very privileged that these guys have become such an invested part of this group."
They just kept agreeing to come down and play, Watkins says, as if she's still a little surprised. It's clear she has musical crushes on each of her band mates. She dotes on one musician, admiring "the way he got inside songs he had never heard before" and saying of another, "His playing makes your knees weak, it's just gorgeous."
And, clearly, these seasoned musicians have taken a liking to the talented sibling duo, too. Eventually, Watkins says, it started to feel like a real band. In an effort to document that coalescing collaboration, the group pulled together some of its favorite covers, and recorded an album. And they liked it. So they figured, why not book a few shows?
"It was really this record" that sparked the tour, Watkins explains. "After about 10 or 11 years, our friend Sheldon Gomberg invited us to come to the studio and record some songs. So we did. Everyone was in town and we just picked some fun songs to record. And then when it was mixed we were like, 'This is pretty good. We should do some shows around it to celebrate.'"
But a few shows in New York quickly turned into a full-on tour. They didn't know how it would work out, Watkins says, since the group had never toured together. Fortunately, after a few stops, it's safe to say they clicked.
"It's been pretty amazing because we've gotten to dig in in different ways. We have a long enough history we have a ton of songs we've played together in some capacity or another," Watkins says. "It's been really fun. The shows have gone really well. And it's been a really exciting thing to be a part of."
That tour brings the Watkins Family Hour to Bend's Tower Theatre, August 24 following two already-sold out nights in Seattle.
Watkins Family Hour
8 pm, Monday, August 24