First Listen: Watkins Family Hour, 'Watkins Family Hour'

Watkins Family Hour's self-titled debut comes out July 24. (Courtesy of the artist)
Watkins Family Hour's self-titled debut comes out July 24. (Courtesy of the artist)

On one hand, there's nothing surprising about Watkins Family Hour. When seven incredibly talented musicians get together to make music in a world-class studio with a top-notch producer, it's no shock that the thing sounds good. What is surprising is how well the album's diverse cast works together — there's an innate sense of understanding among the players, of the variety that only comes after years spent working together.

Headed by siblings (and Nickel Creek alums) Sean and Sara Watkins, the Watkins Family Hour got its start as a monthly variety show in Los Angeles. For more than a decade, the Watkins siblings have created a sort of musical experiment: What happens when different musicians get together on stage and there's no script, no plan, for what they want to do? Musical guests in the past have included Jackson Browne, Dawes and Fiona Apple (who's also featured on the new album and will tour with the band this summer).

At the request of producer Sheldon Gomberg, the Watkinses decided to bring the show into the recording studio. So they invited Apple and the phenomenal players who'd become regulars — pedal steel and dobro player Greg Leisz, keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Don Heffington, bassist Sebastian Steinberg — to help turn their monthly variety show into something more permanent.

The songs on Watkins Family Hour, all covers, span a wide range of musical tastes. Each member of the band gets a turn as lead vocalist, which helps keep listeners engaged: Who'll sing next, and how will that sound? Besides that, each musician gets the chance to show off what can be done on his or her instrument. Check out the rollicking fiddle jam in the traditional "Hop High," and prepare to be blown away by Sara Watkins' remarkable vocal range at the same time — who knew she could sing like that? Or the gentle back-and-forth between Leisz's pedal steel and Tench's keyboard in the Roger Miller composition "Not In Nottingham." Lindsey Buckingham's "Steal Your Heart Away" provides another compact demonstration of what these musicians accomplish when they work together: They listen to each other, they pay attention to each other, and it's glorious.

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