As they formed Nickel Creek, the three musicians were already starting to win bushels full of championship trophies. Most notably, Sara took the Arizona State Fiddle Championship when she was 15. Sean, at 16, was a finalist on mandolin as well as guitar in the National Flatpicking Guitar Championship. As a teen, Thile was a finalist for the International Bluegrass Music Association's mandolin player of the year honor numerous times. The band itself won the Southwest regional division of the Pizza Hut International Bluegrass Band Championship in 1994 and built an enthusiastic following through appearances at major festivals and on television, radio and the Internet.
The trio recorded its 2000 self-titled debut with Thile's father Scott serving as an unofficial fourth member, on acoustic bass.
The members shared singing duties on the album, which was split evenly between vocal tracks and instrumentals. On the strength of constant touring and vibrant videos, the CD has sold more than 800,000 copies, netting the band two Grammy nominations and earning an IBMA award for emerging artist of the year in 2000. TIME magazine named them one of five music innovators for the new millennium.
In 2001, Thile won an IBMA award for mandolin player of the year. In addition, he and Sean Watkins released solo albums, and Sara appeared in a national television ad.
In Nickel Creek's second album, 2002's This Side, the band ventures far from their bluegrass roots, delving into jazz, rock and classical styles and even covered the alternative rock band Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger." (Thile and Sean Watkins wrote a majority of the remaining material.) The album has been certified gold and offered the adult-alternative hit, "Smoothie Song." Even more impressive, the set won a Grammy in 2003 for best contemporary folk album, besting efforts from Johnny Cash, the Chieftains, Steve Earle and Patty Griffin.