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Chris Thile: From the 'nursing home circuit' to 'Prairie Home Companion' host

Chris Thile will return for a second season as the host of
Chris Thile will return for a second season as the host of "A Prairie Home Companion."
Jason Davis/Getty Images for Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival
Chris Thile will return for a second season as the host of
Chris Thile along with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer have a new album, “Bach Trios.”
Danny Clinch

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The baroque composer J.S. Bach never wrote for the mandolin. But Chris Thile has found a way around that.

Along with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer, Thile arranged a number of compositions for their new album, “Bach Trios.” 

Thile is a mandolin virtuoso who’s been given a MacArthur “genius” award. He now finds himself balancing a busy recording-and-touring career with his new role as host of  “A Prairie Home Companion.” Thile first performed on the show when he was just 15 years old. By then, he had already been playing professionally for some time with his first band, Nickel Creek. He later performed on the show with another band, The Punch Brothers.

So it seems appropriate that Thile took over for Garrison Keillor as the host of “Prairie Home.” And he has signed on with the show for a second season. He spoke this week with John Horn.

Interview highlights:

On why Garrison Keillor chose him to take over as host

As far as I can tell, it just popped up one day. Garrison must have had an inkling that such a thing were possible earlier than I first heard about it. I played for the first time on the show when I was 15. That would have been 1996. I had been listening to the show since birth — before birth. My parents were every-week listeners. It was even a sort of event. We would sit around and listen to "Prairie Home Companion" before dinner on Saturdays. As out of the clear blue sky as it was, it took me all of a second-and-a-half to decide to do it. 

On what he liked about "Prairie Home Companion" growing up and what elements he kept once he became host

For me, music was always a huge part of the show. I guess I'm kind of a music-first listener, but also, Garrison would set the music up to be seen in its most flattering light. That's one of the reasons we've kept the spoken word elements of the show intact, even if maybe there's not quite as much spoken word as there was. I think that's one of the great things about the show — how the music makes the spoken word more intimate and potentially funnier. 

I patterned my rapport with an audience after Garrison's. The way he would engage people is something that I took with me to stage, even as a little headstrong eight-year-old playing at bluegrass festivals or nursing homes.

Chris Thile was awarded a MacArthur
Chris Thile was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant at the age of 31.
Brantley Gutierrez

On using "Prairie Home Companion" as a platform to discover new artists

That's as exciting a component of the gig as anything. Traveling around, hearing a bunch of great music, you start to feel like, Why isn't this person massive? Someone like Gaby Moreno, for instance, who's been my duet partner on the show three different times now. I don't understand why she isn't a mega-star. Why would she even be returning my phone calls? I feel a grave injustice that she will even speak to me. So the fact that I now have this platform to give her — or to give someone like Julian Lage, this brilliant guitarist — I love being able to do that. But also, I've always loved comedy, so now having this platform for a great comedian like Nate Bargatze or Aparna Nancherla, it's just so much fun. And then to see what happens when you get someone like Gaby Moreno and Nate Bargatze on the same stage.

On expanding the definition of musical genres

Just propagating my feeling that those words like bluegrass and house music or classical, in the last analysis, don't mean a whole heck of a lot. It's a very useful way of classifying music that's actually maybe overly derivative. If you think about it for a second, genres arrive, I think, when a bunch of really good musicians copy a few great ones. I would posit that it's more interesting to emulate the spirit of creativity that these great musicians embody than to imitate their actual music.

On how he first started playing mandolin

I was five when I got to touch one for the first time. My parents went to this dinner party with friends and the guy had a mandolin hanging on his wall. I just started jumping up and down: Mandolin! Mandolin! I want to play it! And the guy, bless him — Joey Latimer was his name — he let me sit on the floor with this mandolin, just strumming it because I didn't know how to finger it with my left hand. At the end of the night, he gave it to me. He put it in a pillowcase and I took it home. And that was all it took.

On playing Bach on mandolin and how he chose the repertoire with collaborators Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer

The main thing with Bach is that there aren't really any arguments about him having been the greatest musician who's ever lived. And you just want to play as much Bach as you can. [But] he didn't actually write anything for the mandolin. You have to start improvising a little bit. The three of us love making music together and we wanted to find some Bach to play, which meant we were looking for three-voice music — anything written in three parts. So Edgar takes the low part, I take the high part, and Yo-Yo is singing over the top.


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