RADIO’S RENAISSANCE MAN
Mandolin maestro and folk band front man Chris Thile fills big shoes as the host of “Live from Here,” which comes to the Fox May 19
Chris Thile is familiar with life on the road. The prodigious mandolin player began performing onstage at age 5, touring bluegrass festivals in the family camper and forming Grammy Award-winning Nickel Creek by 8.
His is the kind of talent that appears perhaps once in a generation, and at an early age, it was the impetus for worldwide travel. His musical gifts extend beyond the ability to play Bach from memory— he’s also a prolifically creative writer. He’s composed his own work as a solo artist, as well as for Nickel Creek and his band, Punch Brothers.
When American Public Media prepared to replace Garrison Keillor after 40 years as the creator and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” eyes turned to Thile, the versatile musician who first appeared on the show more than two decades ago when he was 15.
For Thile, the transition came like many things in his life: naturally. He’s studied the art of the interview since his adolescence, though he’s typically on the answering end of it. Now the tables have turned. As the host of “Live from Here,” the refreshed variation of “Prairie Home,” Thile is able to combine skills. He interviews fellow musicians, and they improvise performances for a live radio audience. His musical charisma translates to equivalent ability in the art of conversation. Now, the traveling variety show is making its way to Atlanta for a performance at the Fox Theatre on May 19. We talked with Thile about his new gig.
How does being on tour with “Live from Here” differ from touring you’ve done in the past?
I get to go home [to Brooklyn, New York] in between [shows], which is really lovely. I get to see my wife and my little boy. And the massive difference is that every show is different, so you’re not going somewhere and putting on the same show. You’re in a different town, like you do when you’re touring. For instance when Punch Brothers go on tour, we’re presenting a body of work, usually something having to do with the last record. You’re doing a lot of the same material night in, night out, which is a wonderful experience in its own right. You really get time to just sharpen things and present a given piece of music exactly how you hear it in your head, but the downside to that is every now and then you might just not be feeling it and go, “Ugh, this song again?” You never mean to mail it in, but occasionally you might find yourself going through the motions. Ultimately, I love having the balance of both because there’s that rough and tumble aspect of “this is all brand new; we’ve never done any of this before.” There’s that excitement, but then, of course, mistakes happen. You just have to shrug it off and go, ”Well, that’s live radio for ya!”
You’re recording another Punch Brothers album in between broadcasting shows. How does having so many projects help you stay inspired?
I’m a blessed person to have all these things going on, each of which I’d enjoy enough to have it be the only thing I’m doing. I can’t believe I get to spend my life doing this. Absolutely each one gives you fuel for the fire, and you learn something from one project, and you apply it to the next one.
What’s it like to be a radio host, responsible not just for music but for conversation?
I try to apply the years of being on the other side of the microphone to coax the best, freest, easiest, funniest answers and the most enticing conversation out of musicians, particularly, but sometimes I interact with comedians as well. It’s all really fun.
What’s your favorite thing about hosting “Live from Here”?
One of the most thrilling aspects of hosting a radio show is getting to show people things that I think are great. That happens to me all the time; we’ll be on the bus traveling, and one of my bandmates will put on something that I’ve never heard, and my life is better. So the opportunity to do that for a large group of people on a weekly basis is pretty thrilling.
Are you excited to play at the Fox Theatre?
I’ve gotten to play the Fox twice before with Nickel Creek, but it’s been a long, long time. I can’t wait to get back there. The Fox is a historical, brilliant-sounding theater where so much epic music has been made. It’s gonna be a really exciting night for me, for sure.
What else are you most looking forward to doing in Atlanta?
Part of my routine is I always go out to dinner and start working on my opening monologue [and prepare] a couple of things I’m going to say about the show, and in Atlanta I would love for that to happen at Holeman & Finch. I love that place. The cocktails are great; the food is amazing.
STORY: Jodi Cash
Photo: Devin Pedde