Chris Thile is not one of those musicians who starts a band and stays in that band for 30 years and does almost nothing else along the way. He stays busy doing other stuff.
Thile started bluegrass-folk trio Nickel Creek back in 1989 along with siblings Sean and Sara Watkins. In 2006 he started Punch Brothers, a band that the New York Times described as “American country-classical chamber music.”
Now, he’s taking over Garrison Keillor’s job as the host of A Prairie Home Companion. And he’s doing it for good reasons.
“People out there need a break, man,” Thile told Rolling Stone. “Our fall has been hijacked by a presidential election. It’s a very important election, and I will certainly be addressing that on the show, but hopefully I can provide people a little bit of relief, too. Music and laughter: those are top-shelf forms of relief, I’d say.”
And he’s taking this new position seriously.
A Prairie Home Companion has become one of public radio’s longest-running shows, beginning in 1974. Back then, most people listened to the radio instead of watching a TV.
“I want to work radio shows like this back into our lives,” he says. “People my age are having children now, and [listening to shows like A Prairie Home Companion] is such a wonderful thing to do as a family. At the end of the week, maybe you’re in your car and you only turn it on for 15 minutes, but you still get to feel connected to something else. It’s church-like, in a way. The radio — this old piece of technology that’s still crackingly current — gives you this communal experience in real time.”
But it’s not going to be all easy riding for Thile. The average listener of the show is 59 — almost old enough to begin withdrawing money from your retirement account. Thile, on the other hand, is 36 — a young’n. So he has to keep those older listeners around yet do things to interest the younger generations.
The secret, he says, is music.
“I wanna really blow the doors off on the musical front,” he says.
He was actually a musical guest on the show back when he was just 15 and in Nickel Creek. So he’s used to being “too young” for the job.
A recent performance on the show with Thile as host was Jack White of The White Stripes and Margo Price, a singer-songwriter that The FADER called “country’s next star.”
“I want the show to be a home for the breadth of the good music being made in the world,” he says. “My musical output has been consistently acoustic, but my taste has not. I love everything. As long as it’s good, I’m in. If you’re sitting there going, ‘Well, these particular genres are the only genres I like,’ that’s like saying, ‘I only like books with this particular kind of cover.’ Because that’s all genre is. It’s a discussion of texture.