Chris Thile on unexpected career as host of "A Prairie Home Companion"

The musician, who first appeared as a guest on the show in 1996 at age 15, explains why the “pressure is off” being former host Garrison Keillor’s successor

Chris Thile’s career has been marked by the unexpected and frequent bouts of reinvention. He’s performed with Nickel Creek -- a group he formed when he was just a child -- and later, the Punch Brothers. He’s also had a solo career, including collaborations with artists as varied as Béla Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma. 

Now, in a whole new career turn, he’s in his first year as the new host of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” 

When Garrison Keillor chose Thile to succeed him as host of the series, it was a surprise to almost everyone -- especially the 35-year-old musician.
 
“Did you have any idea this was coming?” Mason asked.

“Oh, absolutely not. Out of the clear, blue sky,” Thile said. “He starts outlining this plan: ‘I think I’m going to be leaving the radio pretty soon. I think maybe you should do it after I’m done.’”

And what was his first reaction to the idea? “When he says the words, my mind just exploded with all of the things I want to do on the show. ‘I could do this and I could do this and I could call this person...’” Thile replied.

As host, Thile has brought in an all-star cast of musical friends. Marcus Mumford was on last week’s broadcast, and Steve Martin will join him Saturday night.
 
A virtuoso on the mandolin, Thile has been playing since he was five, when he begged his parents for the instrument.
 
“Was it the sound of the mandolin?” Mason asked.

“The sound of it I love. If you just think about a mandolin sound in your head, even that classic like ‘Lady & The Tramp,’ you know, it’s the precise knife’s edge kind of a sound,” Thile said. “I loved that as a little boy, and continue to love what it demands of a player in terms of precision.”

He was just eight when he formed the band Nickel Creek with California friends Sara and Sean Watkins. Their major label debut in 2000 went platinum, and the followup won them a Grammy for Best Folk Album.

Thile, who grew up listening to “A Prairie Home Companion,” first appeared on the broadcast in 1996 at age 15.

“I remember everything about that,” he said, laughing. “I remember walking to the department store on the way there to get a nice shirt because I didn’t have one!”

He would perform on the show 24 times, before becoming its host. 

“What about the intimidation factor of succeeding Garrison Keillor?” Mason asked.

“My perception of other people’s perception of this handoff is that there is no way it could work,” Thile said.

“But somehow you like the challenge of that?”

“Well, think about it, the pressure is off.”

“Why? Because you’re a failure already?” Mason asked, laughing.

“Well, no, just because no one thinks it can happen. And so if it can, that would be a hell of a good surprise,” Thile said.

And as if he weren’t busy enough, Thile also has a new album out January 27th, with celebrated Jazz pianist and long-time collaborator Brad Mehldau. It features both original material and interpretations from a wide range of songwriters.