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John Lamb, Published August 29 2010

Sara Watkins finds her way

With his deep voice and towering stature, Garrison Keillor can be an imposing figure.

So pairing him with a diminutive singer with a sweet, soft voice wouldn’t seem to mix.

But the “Prairie Home” host has found a new and effective onstage singing companion with Sara Watkins.

“I really enjoy singing with him,” she says. “Especially when he sings harmony, we blend really well.”

Watkins may be best known as the fiddler/singer in the string trio Nickel Creek, but she stepped out on her own with her self-titled solo debut last year.

Talking the day after the first show of the “Prairie Home Companion” Summer Love Tour, which will be in Moorhead on Wednesday, Watkins says she’ll play some solo tunes and cover some classics from Bob Dylan and the Everly Brothers with Keillor during these performances.

“He’s very good at finding material that is familiar to the audience and they can sing along to in their head,” she says, but adds nothing will be too cheesy.

Does that mean the Summer Love Tour won’t feature “Summer Nights” from the “Grease” soundtrack?

“I wouldn’t say that,” Watkins says with a laugh. “It’s been sung a little bit, but not on stage.”

A review of the Summer Love Tour date in Salt Lake City said, “The night moved seamlessly between Watkins’ old-style country melodies… ’50s rockabilly, lots o’ bluegrass and Keillor’s famous sing-a-long intermission, which concluded with ‘Amazing Grace.’ ” The highlight being “when Watkins and Keillor wrapped with their farewell duet of the Grateful Dead’s ‘Brokedown Palace.’ ”

The one song Watkins’ fans shouldn’t anticipate hearing during Wednesday’s performance is a memorable number from Nickel Creek’s Fargo Theatre set in 2006. Taking the stage for a solo number with only a ukulele, Watkins strummed through a cover of Tom Waits’ “Pony,” but in the middle of the song she got lost in the lyrics.

She stamped her bare foot and repeatedly said “Crap!” while figuring her way through the tune and finishing the number gracefully.

A flawless version is featured on her solo disc.

“Unfortunately, I have forgotten the words to ‘Pony’ three or four times onstage,” she says. “That song is the one that does that, and I don’t know why because I love it so much.”

As for the future of Nickel Creek, Watkins says all three members stay in touch (guitarist and brother Sean plays with her on the road, and mandolin player/singer Chris Thile played on Sara’s album), but that everyone is too busy to get back together.

“We don’t see a time where that would work,” she says. “Right now it’s been fun just to be a fan of my bandmates and see what they want to do.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533