It’s never easy to be an icon. Fans’ expectations are specific and uncompromising, and the burden to maintain the standard you’ve set for yourself is ever-present.
But perhaps even harder is the task of replacing an icon. Because along with those expectations comes adoration—a fierce loyalty among fans that can be an insurmountable barrier to success for the newbie. Fortunately for enthusiasts of A Prairie Home Companion, host Garrison Keillor thought long and hard before selecting Kentuckian Chris Thile as his replacement, and loyalty to this newcomer will surely be swift and genuine.
A Prairie Home Companion is the iconic, Minnesota-based live public radio variety show, where master host, writer and creative genius Keillor was at the helm for 41 years. Listeners enjoyed comedy, live music and the “News from Lake Wobegon,” Keillor’s signature storytelling segment that spawned his best-selling book, Lake Wobegon Days. And while the current demographic for this program skews a bit older than the 35-year-old Thile, who was scheduled to host his first show on Oct. 15, the new host’s talent and passion likely will bring a younger generation into the APHC fold.
The likeable Thile (pronounced “Thee-lee”) has a warm, personable air that presents itself at the first hello. Though our conversation took place over the phone, his personality came tumbling out with every friendly syllable. Not in a practiced, I’m-an-entertainer-and-have-carefully-crafted-my-image way, but rather in a why-don’t-we-have-some-coffee-and-chill kind of way that makes one immediately comfortable. Relieved there would be no verbal fencing, I started at the beginning to learn what makes this multiple award-winning composer, musician, husband and father tick.
“I was entranced before I understood,” said Thile, referring to his earliest exposure to music in his parents’ living room in Oceanside, California. “And A Prairie Home Companion was a big part of it.” The sounds of bluegrass music delighted young Thile as he and his folks sidled up to the radio to listen to APHC and Keillor’s antics. “My parents were a religious Prairie Home Companion family, and we would gather on Saturday afternoons to the sound of Garrison’s voice.”
Thile had a small tape player that he listened to constantly, enjoying any and all songs that flowed from the tiny speakers. Trips to a local pizza parlor brought the budding musician closer to his muse and fueled his interest in the mandolin. “I remember going to the That Pizza Place, where they had live bluegrass music,” said Thile, “and I could actually see human beings playing it.”
The prominence and sound of the mandolin left an impression, and while accompanying his parents to dinner at the home of one of their friends, 5-year-old Thile noticed one hanging on the wall as a decorative accent. “I realized it was the same as what the guys at the pizza place played,” he said. Little Chris, who was jumping up and down in excitement, was handed the instrument and proceeded to “play” it for the rest of the evening. “I sat all through dinner just strumming the open strings,” said Thile, laughingly adding that the owner was kind enough to let him have it for free, despite his generous “I’ll give you all my quarters” offer.
From there, things moved quickly. Thile’s mother gave him a small book of mandolin music and arranged lessons with the pizza guy that lasted six years. During this time, he met siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, and the three formed the progressive bluegrass band Nickel Creek. The group played together from 1993-2007, releasing five albums and winning International Bluegrass Music Awards for Emerging Artist of the Year and Instrumental Group of the Year in 2000 and 2001, respectively; a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2002; and a CMT Top Ten Country Compilations Award in 2006.
Thile was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—aka “genius grant”—in 2012, and a sixth Nickel Creek album, A Dotted Line, was released in 2014. Thile formed a second Bluegrass band, Punch Brothers, producing a half-dozen albums and one music video, and has worked with legendary names in the music business such as Béla Fleck, Yo-Yo Ma and Josh Ritter.
For many of us, it would be difficult not to focus on these accolades and let the fame go straight to our heads. Thile, however, is having none of that. With a refreshing blend of humbleness and pragmatism, he explained how he keeps it all in perspective. “It’s hard to tell why you win a Grammy,” he said. “You have to be so careful about all that stuff.”
Thile views it as less about producing the perfect song or album and more about how one is currently trending. He is grateful for his success but guarded. “It’s more of a popularity contest,” he said. “If you put too much stock in all the good, what about a bad review, then? You have to do this for the love of making a beautiful thing. Don’t pretend that it means more than it does.”
He was born in Oceanside and his Kentucky connection began in Murray, where his father accepted a position as a musical instrument technician at Murray State University when Chris was 14. He attended Murray briefly before moving to Nashville to pursue his musical ambitions but maintains a close connection to the Commonwealth. “I love the state,” Thile said. “My parents still live in Murray, and I go at least once a year.”
Living in Kentucky and Tennessee created a refreshing musical contrast to his Southern California experience. “It helped shape my musicianship in a counterintuitive way,” he said. “I was already into bluegrass music, but moving where it was commonplace … It doesn’t raise any eyebrows, and it was really valuable in that sense.”
Citing the derivative nature of much of today’s popular music, Thile shared his desire to do something—to be something—different. “California is a haven for pop music,” he said, “but sounding like other people is only interesting to people who don’t know who those people are. I am not interested in genres. What I love is hearing something unique. I want to get inside their minds, their music.”
Thile, who currently lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, actress Claire Coffee, and 18-month-old son Calvin, will be on the road for APHC, performing in both the show’s home venue, the historic Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, as well as cities such as Chicago, New York, Nashville, Seattle and Denver. And while Keillor’s departure will necessitate new segments to replace the old, Thile plans to make the transition as seamless as possible, combining the best of APHC then and now. “I want to create a sense of meaning or purpose,” he said. “The main thing is the format of the show. Two hours of live music and comedy … There is such a sense of depth. Two hours stick with you throughout the week, to brighten our lives a bit.”
Wherever Prairie is being performed, listeners can be certain of one thing: The talent and enthusiasm of Chris Thile will come shining through. Summing up his vision for the show, the mandolin virtuoso waxed hipster eloquent: “To make a beautiful thing and give it to someone. On radio, using this format is so righteous … and really, really fun.”