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Fiddle player and singer/songwriter Sara Watkins was born on June 8, 1981, in Santa Monica, CA, and first began performing professionally in 1989 in an early version of the group that became Nickel Creek. Released in 2000, Nickel Creek's self-titled debut album was produced by Alison Krauss and peaked in the Top 20 of the Billboard country chart; it remained on the list for more than a year. The group's second album, 2002's This Side, built upon such success by reaching number two. Watkins' multi-instrumental skills proved to be one of the band's key assets, and her songwriting prowess developed as Nickel Creek's career progressed.
In 2004, the bandmembers formed an ad hoc group called Mutual Admiration Society with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket and John Paul Jones, formerly of Led Zeppelin. The supergroup cut a self-titled album and toured in support. Meanwhile, Jones encouraged Watkins to make a solo album, which she prepared for by playing solo shows at the Los Angeles club Largo. She also played on recording sessions as a fiddle player and/or harmony singer with Hank Williams, Jr., the Chieftains, Béla Fleck, Darol Anger, Switchfoot, Jonny Lang, Dan Wilson, Ben Lee, Richard Thompson, Mandy Moore, and Alex Woodard, among others. Developing as a songwriter, she contributed to five songs on the Nickel Creek album Why Should the Fire Die? The group went on indefinite hiatus after the disc's release, and Watkins signed to Nonesuch Records as a solo artist before contacting Jones about producing her debut album. Sara Watkins was released April 7, 2009. The Blake Mills-produced Sun Midnight Sun followed in 2012, and featured guest spots from Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench and Jackson Browne, among others.