Acclaimed mandolinist, bluegrass composer, vocalist and radio host Chris Thile has a significant Southern California connection.
He was born in Oceanside in 1981 and spent his early years there and in Carlsbad. At age 4, his family moved to Idyllwild, where he lived until he was 14. A move to Murray, Ky., followed.
“I still feel a Southern California connection,” said Thile, a multiple Grammy Award winner who now lives in Brooklyn.
“My entire extended family is in north San Diego County. The Thile family immigrated from Hamburg, Germany, to San Diego in the late 1800s. So I have pretty deep Southern California roots.”
He will be performing solo June 18 at the Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University in Orange.
You wouldn’t suspect Thile, 37, was a happy-go-lucky SoCal kid if you knew him strictly from his music or reputation. A child prodigy, he began playing mandolin when he was 4, and joined the Americana/progressive acoustic group Nickel Creek when he was 8. He won a mandolin championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kan., at 12 years old.
Since then, he released two solo bluegrass albums in his teens, joined the progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, and has recorded several albums solo and with other collaborators, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He has won four Grammy Awards for his recordings since 1997, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.” With his impressive mandolin chops, Thile is known as an innovator in bluegrass, or as he calls it, “newgrass.”
The bulk of Thile’s repertoire may sound country, folk or American roots, but the singer/songwriter intentionally defies categories and doesn’t personally identify with one particular genre.
“Music is music is music,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what instrument you play, and what genre you play. I deeply don’t care. What I care about is music. I don’t listen to genres as music. I just listen to music.”
This attitude is reflected on Thile’s most recent album, “Thanks for Listening,” released in December. It’s more in the alternative singer/songwriter vein, with some instrumental flourishes thrown in. The album includes guest vocals by Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan and Guatemalan singer/songwriter Gaby Moreno.
Wobegon no more
Thile serves as host on one of America’s best-known variety shows on radio — “Live from Here,” formerly known as “A Prarie Home Companion.” He made his first appearance on the show in 1996, when Garrison Keillor was host and Thile was 15. Since then, he appeared multiple times on the show with Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers and as a solo artist. He served as guest host twice in 2015 and twice in 2016.
Keillor hand-picked Thile to be his successor, and the musician took over as permanent host in October 2016. In December 2017 at the Town Hall theater in New York, Thile announced that the show would be renamed “Live from Here.” The show was rebranded after allegations of misconduct against Keillor led to the veteran storyteller’s departure from American Public Media.
At the time, Thile said on the program, “Today we are in the middle of a national movement which I believe represents progress. We’re recognizing the harmful power imbalance that women have had to endure for so long in our culture. My sincere hope is that with awareness will come improvement.
“As for this show, I want it to be a place for us to gather around, hear great music, laugh together, reflect and gain respite from our weekly troubles.”
Thile wants to emphasize that his solo show at the Musco Center will be a completely different experience than “Live from Here.”
“Every ‘Live from Here’ contains new material that I haven’t done on the show before,” he said. “During the solo show, I’ll be playing material I’ve done over the course of my life.
“I try not to repeat too much town to town. You learn to improve on stuff — there’s a fleeting aspect of a live performance.”
Thile also says his solo show will be different than his performances with Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers and other collaborators.
“As a solo musician, you get a feel for the day and the place and the people who are there [in the audience] and make decisions on the fly,” he said. “You can’t necessarily do that when you’re playing with other people.”
In concert, Thile will draw from material on his latest record, as well as traditional music, some covers and Johann Sebastian Bach.
“You can lose yourself in a collaborative partner — a bandmate or whoever. At a solo show, it’s very lonesome if you don’t involve the audience in the creative element of the show. If you don’t involve them, you might as well play alone in your room.”
If You Go
What: Chris Thile
When: 7:30 p.m. June 18
Where: Musco Center for the Arts, 415 N. Glassell St., Orange
Information: (844) 626-8726 or muscocenter.org
Richard Chang is a contributor to Times Community News.