The ripples extended far past the shores of Lake Wobegon when Garrison Keillor recorded his final episode of A Prairie Home Companion on July 1. In 2015, announcing his decision to step down, Keillor, 74, marked mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile as his successor.
Though Thile, 35, was a frequent guest on the show, he initially struck some as an odd choice. Thile rose to prominence with indie-bluegrass group Nickel Creek and has made a name for himself both with his own alt-leaning bluegrass group The Punch Brothers and as a highly-sought after collaborator for other instrumentalists like double bassist Edgar Meyer and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But talking with Thile, it’s clear that the first thing he brings to the table as the show’s new host is a deep and abiding love of APHC.
His first hosting stint is Saturday, Oct. 15. Check out his thoughts on the gig below.
How did you find out you were going to be taking over for Garrison?
It came out of the clear blue sky. I was minding my own business on a tour bus in Ann Arbor, Michigan, touring with Edgar Meyer, and Garrison’s named showed up on my caller ID. I had to let it go to voicemail, I was right in the middle of practicing for our show. When he called me in the past, it had been [launches into a scarily accurate Garrison Keillor impression] “Chris, uh, could you come and play this show tomorrow?” So I was thinking to myself, man, I would love to, but I can’t, I’m in the middle of this tour. So I checked the message, and he says, “Chris I have something that might be of interest to you. Anyway, call me back.”
He really undersold it.
Yeah, he did. So, my interest was piqued, and when I called him back, he just launched right into this plan. And as unprepared as I was to hear what he was saying, it took me all of two seconds to decide: “Yes, absolutely.”
Particularly because, at the time, my wife was pregnant with our son, and I was thinking, “Man, am I gonna be gone 100, 150 days a year for the rest of my life?” And it’s not like I won’t ever tour again, but I’m looking forward to touring less, and putting more emphasis on creating things and showing people things that I like rather than playing the things that I’ve already made over and over again.
You’ve had your first child [with wife Claire Coffee] in May 2015. I’ve interviewed a lot of musicians, and having kids seems to usually be the turning point where they talk about wanting to get off the road. Did you ever envision that you would be looking for something else at this point in your life?
I think I have ultimately felt that touring is a young person’s game. I’ve always seen myself kind of doing a nifty crossfade between performing and creating. I’ve always tried to write and create but I feel like up to this point, there’s been a disproportionate amount of performing to actually creating. And it feels like right about now is the right time to start that crossfade.
And that’s one of the great things about this show, and one of the things Garrison would tell you about it. The amount that he’s written and the stories that he’s told us and the music that he’s facilitated on the show … but I think he would tell you that he’s enjoyed both getting to make things but also getting to show people things as well. And that’s the thing for me. The solution wasn’t, “Oh I’ll stay home and take commissions and compose in my basement,” so this is coming at the perfect time. And for all of my focus on music, since I was little, I’ve also taken a great deal of care in the actual delivery of the music, the putting on of a show. That’s always fascinated me, the stagecraft of it. And from birth, practically, Garrison is someone I’ve looked as an inspiration with regard to that.
That’s not typically something you hear from people tagged as virtuosos. There’s this image of people who have trained specifically on one instrument as being monastic or singularly focused on the technical aspect of performance.
If you’re going to perform, then the art of performance beyond the actual physical wiggling of one’s fingers is very important. I have quite literally been listening to Prairie Home Companion since I was born, and the way that Garrison spins his yarns into these worlds that we can inhabit … I’ve always gravitated towards artists who can do that. Rather than hit us over the head with a story or a song, they give us building blocks to create universes and worlds of our own. It’s a very beautiful tradition and one that I can’t wait to start creating and curating within.
You’re obviously coming to the show as a huge fan, but I’m interested in how you plan on deviating, or how you’re going to put your own stamp on the show.
Well, the immediate changes will be that I think I’m going to blow the doors off a little bit as far as what kind of music can be on the show. While my actual output has been fairly texturally uniform — almost exclusively acoustic — my taste is not. It really runs the gamut and I think moving forward, the only requirement of the music that you hear on the show is that it’s good. Really good.
As far as the spoken word segments, I certainly will not be telling you the news from Lake Wobegon, because I think Garrison Keillor is one of the greatest storytellers who has ever lived and … I am not. So you don’t need to hear me do that. But that said, the importance of the human voice on that show, laughter and observations, what it means to be alive in our time and place … we’ll be addressing that musically, via spoken word, via sketches — I’ll be writing a new song every week. The acting company is staying on, and we’ll have a spoken word guest in addition to the two musical guests each week. And the spoken word guest will kind of be replacing the monologue a little bit, but there will be comedians in that slot as well. There are times on the show when Garrison had people in stitches and so we’ll certainly be striving to uphold that tradition.
How far in advance are you planned out? Do you have a Rolodex of guests you’re looking to bring on?
Yeah! We’ve booked, I think, half the season at this point and lots of fun things are coming. I don’t think I’m allowed to say, but I’m very, very excited. Jack White and Lake Street Dive and Maeve Higgins are all coming on in the first episode, so… it’s just a dream show as far as I’m concerned. All these musicians I love, people I consider hilarious. The tools in the toolbox, man… I’m a kid in a candy store here.