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It’s a string thing: Chris Thile, Punch Brothers in town this week

Bill DeYoung

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Chris Thile is the host of NPR's "Live From Here," formerly "A Prairie Home Companion." NPR photo.

As a pre-teen mandolin prodigy, Chris Thile was always pretty sure he was destined for greatness. His trio, Nickel Creek, routinely dropped jaws at bluegrass festivals, and cut the first of six acclaimed albums when Chris was just 12 years old. The prodigiously talented Southern California kid was homeschooled by parents who were inherently musical, and so didn’t have anyone around telling him his aspirations were impossible or unrealistic.

“I’ve always been a head-in-the-clouds dreamer, even as I’m working on very specific things,” explains the master musician, now 38, in an interview with the St. Pete Catalyst. “I remember the phone would ring in my family’s house, and I would always say ‘It’s for me – it’s Bela. Someone had to drop out of the Flecktones tour, and he needs me to sit in. Don’t worry, I got it.’”

Bela Fleck, the versatile banjo wizard who took his instrument many miles outside bluegrass state lines and re-wrote musical “rules,” wouldn’t come calling until 2001 – he tapped Thile for an album of classical music performed on non-traditional instruments – but for the young mandolinist, the bar was set high, and set early.

“You can’t just dream, obviously, because then you’ll never actually get anything done,” Thile muses. “But I do think that sometimes just focusing on the practice at hand can be a little bit like the hamster on the wheel. You have to know where all of that energy is headed, or potential goals for all that dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s to be headed.

“So, a little bit of balance. Right in the present moment, working on the independence between my pinkie and ring finger. Being a fluid, competent mandolin player is like being a good hammer … so, what is all that going to be in service of?”

Punch Brothers:: Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Paul Kowert. Photo: Nonesuch Records

At the moment, it’s in the service of Punch Brothers, the five-piece, experimental acoustic string band Thile created a decade ago for collaboration and camaraderie. The group’s recent All Ashore won the Grammy for Best Folk Album just last month.

Punch Brothers’ All Ashore tour stops at Ruth Eckerd Hall Friday, March 29.

Make no mistake, Punch Brothers, even though it includes fiddle, guitar, banjo, upright bass and mandolin, is not a bluegrass ensemble.

“If you only listen with your eyes,” Thile says, “we’re a bluegrass band. And there’s something about that ensemble that to me is maybe like the way a classical composer would look at the string quartet, or the symphony or something like that – I just understand the bluegrass ensemble, how it works.

“And so to my bandmates in Punch Brothers, we think very fluidly within the textural confines of the string band. And there’s something about that limitation that frees us up creatively – knowing that ‘well, whatever we do, we gotta do it with these five instruments and our voices.’ To me, that’s a very mobilizing limitation. There’s something immobilizing about endless possibility, about ‘oh my God, where do you even start?’

“For us to know, together, that it’s the five of us with these five instruments, so what are we gonna do? All of a sudden you’ve just eliminated a bunch of the wild goose chases you could have gone on – so let’s confine it to THIS wild goose chase.”

One of the group’s early successes was the genre-defying “The Blind Leading the Blind,” a 40-minute suite, in four movements, composed by Thile.

For him, the quintet has always been “An exploration of what a string band might be able to do. Punch Brothers at this point is a massive part of my being. To stop doing it honestly feels like cutting off my left arm or something.”

Thile’s dance card is always full. In the last two years, he’s collaborated with cellist Yo Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer on Bach Trios, with pianist Brad Meldhau (classical music and folk songs), a Nickel Creek reunion recording and tour, and All Ashore.

“I’ve started working on, for lack of a more precise word, a musical,” he says. “And we’ll see what happens with that. The project is still in its infancy.”

Then there’s the small matter of Live From Here, the weekly NPR series. He’s been the host, and musical director, since 2017. It’s A Prairie Home Companion after some format tweaking and a legal name-change; upon his retirement in 2016, Garrison Keillor hand-picked Thile as his replacement.

Thanks for Listening, Thile’s 2017 solo release, consists of music he wrote and performed for Live From Here.

“In all the projects I’ve been involved with,” Thile explains, “I have been the host when we performed live. I’ve typically been the point man – the main interface between the audience and the music. And so it doesn’t really feel that much different to me, honestly. I still make a ton of the music on the show. It feels like a pretty natural extension of my activity thus far.

“The main difference is the curatorial aspect of it. I get to show people, or turn people on to, things that I think are interesting and exciting in the world of music. And also, I get to use the show to get to go out and see things I’m interested in. I may not even know much about them, but something about them piques my interest. So it’s not always ‘This is a thing I’ve loved for years – and now I get to show you.’ It’s like ‘This is a thing I’m curious about – let’s discover it together and see what we think.’”

And so there’s a small, selfish aspect to his participation in the series. Thile, who lives in New York City, says he made a New Year’s resolution for 2019: “Get out and see more stuff.” So far, it hasn’t taken.

“If I had more time to go see concerts. But the show is a built-in enforcer of that resolution. I can bring some of the things I really want to go see to us on the show – I include myself in the audience at that point. The show turns me into a very excited audience member. So I get to be the emcee, I get to be a creator of music, and I get to just be an enjoyer of music.”

Thinking outside the box – whatever the box happens to be on any given day – has been part of Chris Thile’s DNA since those earliest days with Nickel Creek in California.

“Every once in a while, going to the International Bluegrass Music convention or something, you would run into people who would say ‘That’s not bluegrass.’ Which is fine. If it wasn’t meant to be, that’s not a knock against it. It’s just a truism.  Which is how I always took it.”

He looks at everything in his path as a challenge – and a positive. “Bill Monroe made some great bluegrass. So something which is easily labeled as such is necessarily derivative. And I don’t think many of us should be in the business of making derivative music.”

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