Thirty-four-year-old mandolinist Chris Thile has helped shape each genre of music he’s dipped his toes into. With Nickel Creek, he injected the tired world of bluegrass with a dose of fresh ideas, spurring on the newgrass movement. With the Punch Brothers, he developed an indie-rock band that played the majority of their music acoustically, proving that the “unplugged” sound was still in demand. Then there are the classical projects, featuring collaborations with some of the most heralded musicians in the world, and the fact that Garrison Keillor chose him as his replacement on A Prairie Home Companion, a job he’ll be starting soon.
While all of this is beyond impressive, the question must be asked: With all of these projects, does Thile just hate down time?
“That’s a fair question,” the singer says with a laugh. “No, I think not, but I guess we’ll find out when I finally get a little time at home. We actually just had a little five-month-old boy, so I’ve never wanted to be home as badly as I do right now. The thing is, I really love performing music for people, so it’s quite a dance to try to fit everything in without leaving anyone out.”
Thile’s latest tour features the musician performing selections of Bach violin works on the mandolin, as well as his own compositions and work from various projects. When asked what drew him to Bach, Thile wants to make clear that he’s not just playing this kind of music for a sense of respectability or using it as an attempt to be considered an “authentic musician” by some.
“I can honestly say that the project came along just because his music is so astounding,” Thile says. “It didn’t happen because I was wanting to play classical and change things up. Honestly, I don’t really see the music styles I play as being that different. While I appreciate the aesthetic differences, and I can see how they could be perceived as being different, ultimately the nuts and bolts of great pieces of music are surprisingly similar to each other. They all seem to fire on all cylinders: melodic, structural, rhythmic. All of those levels have to be vibrant and revolving around each other in their own way. With Bach, every one of those things are working in concert with each other, and I love interacting with them. As I worked on the music, I didn’t have to change any of the notes, yet the music is substantially different. I won’t say better, but I definitely won’t say worse. It sheds a new light on that type of music.”
He adds, “I don’t want to give people the wrong idea, the concert isn’t going to be all Bach. There are going to be all kinds of things going on: singing, playing some things I’ve written, just playing some things I like — that sort of thing.”
Thile hopes that young musicians can use his career as an example, showing that it is possible to breathe life into tired concepts of music. Starting out as a trio of young musicians in the world of bluegrass, Nickel Creek were viewed by some of the old guard as heretics, introducing a more modern sound to the genre. But they also inspired a new generation to pick up instruments and continue to build on their legacy. “When someone walks up to me and tells me that something I did with Nickel Creek really meant something to them, it’s just a wonderful side of doing music. It does remind me, though, of when we first began performing bluegrass together and we all thought, ‘Where are the new and fresh ideas here?'”
New and fresh ideas are exactly what Thile will present soon as he takes up the mantle of hosting the venerable public radio staple A Prairie Home Companion. When Garrison Keillor officially announced his retirement and named Thile his replacement this past July, it took many listeners by surprise. While Thile had guest-hosted the show a couple of times in the past, many just assumed that there would be a push for a bigger name. Thile says that the hiring process didn’t exactly consist of grueling negotiations.
“He just told me,” Thile says. “He told me that he was leaving and he said, ‘Would you be interested in this?’ I said, ‘Yes, I would.’ And there you have it.”
He continues, “I’m a huge fan of the show, always have been. And by always I mean basically since I was born. The show was on every week in my home growing up. Garrison Keillor has created such a vibrant world with that show, a place where we can both escape from the concerns of the day and celebrate those same concerns. There is a feeling of, ‘C’mon, let’s put on a show,’ and just rewinding everyday life. Then he also presents a fantasy world that we can explore.”
He adds, “In my own way I hope to carry on that tradition of simultaneously transporting people away from their problems for a moment but also celebrating our daily lives. I think it’s an incredibly important radio show, and I’m excited to try not to mess it up.”