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It started when he was a toddler in Oceanside, California. His folks took him along for weekly visits to a pizza parlor in nearby Carlsbad, where he heard John Moore’s band Bluegrass Etc., and where he would soon befriend siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, his future Nickel Creek bandmates.
The mandolin captivated the youngster. He started lessons with Moore, who wasted no time in getting the five-year-old on stage. “I was too young to be nervous.” Chris recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is what you get to do when you’re five.’” Before long, the Thiles were driving bluegrass festival to bluegrass festival in the family camper. Chris was a soaking up music, jamming with other players, and winning championships.
By age eight, Chris had launched Nickel Creek with Sara and Sean Watkins. The genre-bending trio would go on to sell millions of albums and garner a boatload of honors, including a Grammy and a couple of IBMA Awards. In 2007, Nickel Creek called an “indefinite hiatus,” although they reunited in 2014 and released A Dotted Line (Nonesuch Records).
Chris made his first Prairie Home Companion appearance in 1996. That broadcast showcased remarkable young artists. Chris, then 15, clearly fit the bill. Since that early APHC booking, Chris, recipient of a 2012 MacArthur “genius” grant, has certainly made his mark — and not only in bluegrass music. His mandolin concerto, Ad astra per alas porci, had its official premiere in 2009, with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. He has collaborated with a who’s who of musicians. His album Bass & Mandolin (Nonesuch) with Edgar Meyer won a Grammy, as did The Goat Rodeo Sessions (Sony Masterworks), when he joined forces with Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Yo-Yo Ma. And his Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1 — music originally composed for violin — was released by Nonesuch Records in 2013.
In 2006, Chris formed Punch Brothers, with Chris Eldridge (guitar), Paul Kowert (bass), Noam Pikelny (banjo), and Gabe Witcher (fiddle). The group’s recordings include Grammy-nominated The Phosphorescent Blues and a new album, All Ashore, out July 20.
Beginning in fall of 2016, Chris took over at the helm of A Prairie Home Companion, a public radio favorite since 1974. Garrison Keillor, the show’s creator and host announced: “He is, I think, the great bluegrass performer of our time and he is a beautiful jazz player. There just isn’t anything he can’t do — and he is very enthusiastic about live radio.”
“I grew up with the show,’ says Chris. “I take this opportunity, this job, immensely seriously and with great awe.”
The show, now known as Live from Here, continues the tradition of Saturday evening entertainment on public radio — in person, online, on the radio.
Chris Thile is married to actress Claire Coffee. The two, along with their young son, Calvin, make their home in Brooklyn, New York.