Chris Thile (pronounced ‘thee-lee), who came of age in Idyllwild playing mandolin, already has a career life of honors and accolades — and he is only 34.
He is about to add one more — hosting a storied radio program that has been on the air longer than Thile has been on the planet.
Sometime in 2016, the exact date has not been determined, Thile is set to become permanent host of Garrison Keillor’s long running radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” He has previously guest hosted the show and appeared on it frequently. He and Keillor say they are comfortable together, sharing a folksy brand of Americana humor. Of his decision to retire after 42 years at the helm of APHC, Keillor said, “Chris is my man, and I’m eager to stay home and read books.” Keillor is expected to retain an active role in the coming season and beyond in facilitating the transition.
Said Thile about his upcoming hosting gig, “‘A Prairie Home Companion’ was an every Saturday activity for me growing up, and Garrison continues to be a major source of inspiration. He and I have lengthily discussed the future of the show, with me as host, and agree that we should give it a go. There are of course many details to iron out, but I’m very excited.”
The Town Crier’s Halie Wilson remembers Thile well. “He was just a really nice kid,” she recalled. “People wanted to be around him. He played [mandolin] in our classroom when he was in kindergarten.” She remembers, even though he was no longer at Idyllwild School, there was a picture of him playing with his dad at Idyllwild Arts when he was in seventh grade. During the years in Idyllwild when he was being home-schooled, he continued to play Little League. “He was really good in sports,” said Wilson.
Kent Steele, father of another local celebrity, PGA Tour golfer Brendan Steele, remembers Brendan and Chris being buddies when Brendan was 10 and Chris was 12. “Chris gave Brendan some mandolin lessons,” said Steele. “It didn’t take. They also collected baseballs cards and then sold them in town. Brendan and Chris were good friends until the Thiles moved out of state.” Kent also remembered assisting Richard Montaño in coaching Thile in Little League.
Although “A Prairie Home Companion” is built around Garrison Keillor’s Midwest sensibilities and his particular voice, it is not hard to see how the versatile and multi-talented Thile could make APHC his own, while honoring the overall concept.
Like Keillor, Thile has a widely varied repertoire of skills. He writes, plays many instruments, can finesse both Bach and blue grass, can handle skits and humor, and definitely knows his way around the small town community flavor of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
On the Punch Brothers website, Thile talks about the need for community in today’s complicated world, a seminal thread and founding theme of APHC. “Going out after shows, we’d go to bars that were loud, where the music may not be ideal, to be around other people, to get a sense of the world for a second. And I’d see people just like me on their phones, telling people they wish they were there, texting people who really are there. Then some song would come on in real time and some person knows that song and then they see that someone else does too and maybe they both sing it together and that moment is spiritual, some shared experience, and they are interacting in three dimensions, in the flesh, with their fellow man. And that’s communion. ‘Familiarity’ and other songs on this record [‘Phosphorescent Blues’] dive into that: how do we cultivate beautiful, three-dimensional experiences with our fellow man in this day and age?”
Thile is no stranger to fame and good fortune, beginning in his earliest years. He bergan playing mandolin at the age of five. He formed his first group, Nickel Creek, when he was eight years old. The acoustic trio released its first album, “Little Cowpoke” in 1994 when Thile was 13.
He was featured in 1997, at age 16, on the Grammy Award winning folk compilation album, “True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe.” He received an individual Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Scotland” from “True Life Blues.” In 2001, the International Bluegrass Association named him “Mandolinist of the Year.”
Nickel Creek’s album “This Side” won a Grammy Award in 2002 for Best Contemporary Folk Album when Thile was 21. He won his second Grammy in 2013 for Best Folk Album, “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” (with Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer) when he was 32. He currently tours and plays with the acoustic quintet Punch Brothers.
In 2012, Thile was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” one of the most prestigious honors in any field. When notified of the award, Thile said, “It’s such a vote of confidence. My first thought was, ‘I don’t deserve this. Surely there’s been some mistake. You do know I play the mandolin, right?’ The next thought was, ‘I must work hard enough to deserve this. I have to step up my game.’”
Two years later, in 2014, Thile won his third Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for “Bass and Mandolin” (with Edgar Meyer).
In between, Thile received three additional Grammy nominations and was named BBC’s Folk Musician of the Year.
So, being picked to host APHC, one of the great legends in American radio, seems not so unusual in the career of a performer who is already a legend in music.