At age 38, Chris Thile has been a luminary on the Americana music scene for a quarter of a century. He will bring “Live from Here,” his nationally syndicated weekly NPR radio program, to the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park on Saturday evening, July 20.
A child prodigy, Thile mastered the mandolin while still in elementary school, winning a national mandolin competition and recording as a founding member of Nickel Creek at age 12. He has been a principal collaborator in a number of bands, most prominently Nickel Creek (with Sara and Sean Watkins), Goat Rodeo Sessions (with Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan), and with Punch Brothers, his main recording and touring band over the past several years.
Thile has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards, winning four times. In 2012, he was received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.”
A musical guest over the years with Garrison Keillor on NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion,” Thile was asked in 2016 if he would take over as host of the broadcast. “It was Garrison’s idea,” Thile said in a telephone interview last month. “He decided he was coming in for a landing as the show’s host and called me out of the clear blue sky. Well, not necessarily the clearest of blue skies, because I had been a frequent guest on the show. I probably played on it somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 times.”
“Garrison said, ‘I think I’m finishing up here and was wondering if you would be interested in doing it after I’m done. And maybe we would make it a new show or maybe it would just be the same show, but you would start changing it to suit your vision for it.’” The program would change its name to “Live from Here” in late 2017.
“I certainly hadn’t been preparing myself to become a public radio personality,” Thile said. “But there were so many things that instantly made sense about it. One, it’s not like I’m not making lots and lots of music as the host of our show. That’s chief among my responsibilities.”
“And two, I’ve always been the master of ceremonies for the collaborations that I’ve chosen to take on — with Nickel Creek or Punch Brothers or with any number of my touring collaborations. Interfacing with the people who are listening to the music has always been one of my chief responsibilities.”
“So it didn’t seem strange at all. And as I started contemplating what I would start chasing sonically for those two hours on Saturday evenings, I just got more and more excited about the possibilities and it was a pretty easy yes.”
Taking on his new role, Thile immersed himself in the selection of the guest musical artists. “That’s a huge part of what the show is to me,” he said. “I’m really, probably in everyone else’s opinion, too hands on, but being able to help people find the great music being made in the world today is one of the reasons I signed on to do this. So there was no way I was going to fully relinquish control of that situation. That’s not to say I find every last thing that’s on the show. I have wonderful help in combing through what’s available.”
“A surprising aspect of this is that it’s turned me back into a music listener and not just a music maker. As a music maker, you listen to music in a very particular way, a self-serving way. ‘In what way will this music improve my music?’ is often how I would listen before. Now it’s really, ‘In what way will this music improve my life? And will it improve other people’s lives?’”
Thile spoke at length about the contrast of being principally a band member and being a weekly radio host. “The main difference is that instead of putting on the same show over and over again, I’m putting on a new show every week,” he said. “When you’re in a band, usually what you do is develop a batch of material for quite some time, and then you go around showing it to people.”
“I love that process. I love the opportunity to dot all the musical i’s, cross all the musical t’s, and just basically get to mull over a batch of music for what ends up being a few years. But I also love the high wire act of having to have a completely new show ready on a weekly basis. I love that I have both of those musical lives.”
Thile acknowledged that taking on the radio show has had an impact on his other musical commitments. “I suppose anything has a big impact on everything else, any project that you add,” he said. “I think, though, that this (the radio show) has had a bigger impact on what side projects I might take. This has really become the main thing. I feel like it occupies the same territory that side projects used to occupy in relation to Punch Brothers.”
“I’m doing less side, I’m doing drastically less side projects now, I’d say. And trying to make sure that Punch, which is still of very great importance to me, is properly nourished, creatively and professionally.”
“It’s all a balancing act. Anyone who has a family and a job knows what it’s like. There’s always balancing that needs to be done in life. There’s always a little too much to do for the amount of time that we have, but we figure it out. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
— Saturday, July 20, 7:30 p.m. (gates open 5:30 p.m.). $25-$85. Weill Hall at Green Music Center, Sonoma State University. 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 707-664-4246. email@example.com.