Inspired by bluegrass music, Chris Thile began playing mandolin at age 5 in Southern California. At 8, he formed the acoustic trio Nickel Creek. At 12, he released his first solo album, Leading Off.
His career has gone well, including a platinum-selling Nickel Creek album, innovative work with Punch Brothers and four Grammy Awards. In 2012, he won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." But Thile says he's never been busier than as the host of the recently renamed public radio variety show Live from Here.
"The show is not directly recording, but it is making new music," Thile says via phone from Oregon. "I write a new song for each show. I perform in the neighborhood of 20 minutes of music per show, more if you include the birthday shout-out segment [saluting famous musicians on their birthdays]. I have never been more engaged as a creative musician than I am now."
Thile selects the musical guests for Live from Here, and he's joined by Sylvan Esso, John Prine and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a live broadcast from the Saenger Theatre Jan. 20. Comedian Rory Scovel also appears on the show.
Live from Here is the renamed continuation of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Thile first appeared as a guest on Prairie Home when he was 15 and returned to perform many times. In 2016, Keillor named him as his successor. (Following accusations of sexual misconduct against Keillor in November 2017, the show was renamed.) While Keillor launched Prairie Home in the 1970s as a musical variety show, his storytelling and humor became its central appeal. Thile has refocused the show.
"You have to play to your strengths," Thile says. "The format Garrison created is remarkable ... (but I) never felt like I was putting on daddy's suit. Of course, I was not going to go out there and tell stories. ... It's more musically oriented. It's a variety show. The beating heart was spoken word, now it's music, but it's still a variety show."
In addition to musical guests, there are comedians or spoken word guests, as well as the cast's team of actors. Show writer Tom Papa contributes an ongoing tongue-in-cheek travelogue.
Members of Thile's current band Punch Brothers often serve in the show's house band, and Thile expects to host the full band at times once its next album is released.
Thile also joins his musical guests when it feels right, he says. In the last year, he joined Randy Newman in a duet of "You've Got a Friend in Me," backed up Bon Iver, performed with Fiona Apple and joined classical violin soloist Hilary Hahn to play part of a Bach concerto.
Thile likes incorporating a variety of musical styles on the show, which also suits how he sees music evolving.
"It seems to me, music is accurately reflecting increasing homogenization of the world," he says. "You don't have to do anything really. It's just happening. Music is getting more and more souplike and less and less stewlike. Everything is getting thrown in the pot. Maybe 10-20 years ago, you could say there are the carrots, there are the potatoes. Now it's like soup, and you just have to taste it and see what you think: 'Oh, that's orange.'
"More and more, you don't know what it's going to be like just by looking at it. Before, you could look at Punch Brothers and say 'Oh, it looks like it could be bluegrass music.' But what it actually is could be anyone's guess."