Chris Thile bounds into Kopplin’s Coffee shop in St. Paul like he’s one of us.
Well, he’s not. At least not yet. He’s still months away from grabbing the key to the city of Lake Wobegon from Garrison Keillor. Thile is the host-designate for radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” destined to take over Minnesota’s most famous fictional town on Oct. 15.
When Thile (pronounced THEE-lee) arrived at Kopplin’s direct from the MSP airport on a recent afternoon, he looked like any other collegiate type at the indie java joint — stocking cap, quilted jacket, long scarf, jeans and an oldie-but-a-goodie hoodie. Oh, one thing did set him apart — he was carrying a shiny mandolin case.
Know this about Chris Thile: He likes coffee. And it’s not just because his wife is actress Claire Coffee, star of NBC’s “Grimm,” which keeps the family of three in Portland, Ore., where the show is shot.
“The pursuit of great coffee helps me feel at home in the midst of a fairly nomadic life,” says Thile, 35, sounding like a self-educated nerd who could lecture about beans at a community college. “I find it a grounding — oh, God, no, didn’t mean it — it helps center one in the midst of gallivanting about the country. I make it at home. I take it seriously.”
His hands are as animated as an orchestra conductor’s. His eyes are as bright and fast as a 5-year-old’s. His smile is quick and easy, even though he wears a retainer.
Thile discovered Kopplin’s after growing tired of the brew at his downtown St. Paul hotel, where he was staying during a recent visit to “Prairie Home.” He seeks out specialty coffee shops as he travels with the Punch Brothers or Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning progressive bluegrass trio that made him famous in the music industry.
Coffee and music are just two of the priorities in Thile’s life. He’s hopelessly curious about a number of topics, but none more pressing these days than radio, especially how to keep this seemingly ancient medium compelling in a social media world.
Know this about Chris Thile: He was raised on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Growing up in Idyllwild, Calif., he tuned into “PHC” every week with his parents.
“I listened to this show so much I’m tempted to say I have a radio background,” he said over a mug at Kopplin’s. “Sometimes I catch myself intonating like Garrison or ending a phrase with the same kind of cadence. I don’t do it consciously.”
He also credits “PHC” with educating him.
“It really was an important part of my development not only as a musician but as a person,” explains Thile, who first appeared on the show in 1996.
As a California kid, Thile didn’t really have a sense of what the prairie truly meant until he took a drive with his first wife as they moved from Nashville to San Francisco.
“The prairie means Wobegon to me as much as anything else,” he says. “Our route took us through the prairie for hours and hours. It was the dead of winter. The austerity was humbling. I was marveling at this kind of infinite expanse.”
A child prodigy
At age 5, Thile began taking mandolin lessons. Three years later, he formed Nickel Creek with two other kids, the Watkins siblings — Sean, a guitarist, and Sara, a fiddler. Since the group performed at festivals all over California, the mandolinist was home-schooled.
At age 12, Thile won a national mandolin contest and signed with Sugar Hill Records. As a teenager, he made solo albums while Nickel Creek was issuing its own records. The touring and recording have continued nonstop.
In 2001, Thile started branching out, working with other standout acoustic musicians including classical bassist Edgar Meyer, cello giant Yo-Yo Ma and banjo superstar Bela Fleck. In 2006, after Nickel Creek announced an indefinite hiatus, Thile formed the Punch Brothers with four other acoustic aces, recording bluegrass, classical, blues and jazz, among other styles.
In addition to performing everywhere from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival to the Kennedy Center, the Punch Brothers have contributed songs to the soundtracks of “Hunger Games” and the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Their fourth and latest album, 2015’s “Phosphorescent Blues,” led to three Grammy nominations.
Keillor: ‘He is fearless’
In 2012, Thile won a highly coveted $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship — known as the genius grant.
What’s the genius of Chris Thile?
“Curiosity and inventiveness,” explains Keillor. “He plunges in and engages the question and out of that engagement comes invention. He is fearless.”
Fleck, who met Thile more than 20 years ago, calls him “fast-brained.”
“He has a free flow and just keeps on going like Bach or something,” says the banjo virtuoso. “He plays harmonies to things I’m improvising. That’s pretty spectacular. The quantum leaps he brings to the mandolin are profound.”
Fleck continued: “We were hanging backstage once and I wanted to do one of the tunes from my [1995 album] ‘Tales of the Acoustic Planet’ and not only did he know it, he started playing the tune and my solo off the top of his head without ever practicing it. That’s a genius move. I couldn’t remember it and I’ve heard it a million times. He played it on the mandolin absolutely perfect.”
Not only is Thile a quick study, but he’s a natural showman, with a love for words and storytelling as much as for music-making. He’s always willing to take chances, whether it’s making fun of a Californian stuck in Minnesota on “Prairie Home” or having a drummer sit in with the percussion-free Punch Brothers.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to challenging himself, especially with music.
“He’s doing things that have never been done on the mandolin,” said Nickel Creek guitarist Sean Watkins, who has known Thile for 30 years. “He does Bach amazing and [hip-hop star] Kendrick Lamar. Very few can do that — if any.”
Know this about Chris Thile: He likes sports.
“I’m a big sports fan. Sports is like a pressure valve for me,” he admits, though he often has a mandolin in his hands while the game’s on TV.
His family didn’t have a television but his friends did. The boys got hooked on cable broadcasts of Chicago Cubs daytime games.
Thile’s other favorite sport is tennis.
“I love Roger Federer. I find him a constant source of artistic inspiration,” says Thile, turning philosophical. “We all have things to accomplish in our lives. You can do them practically or pragmatically, or you can do them beautifully or artfully. He does what he needs to do beautifully and gracefully. He makes an art out of it.”
As for the sport Thile plays, it’s pingpong.
“Tennis, I fear, is potentially at odds with the muscles I need for playing mandolin,” he explains. “Table tennis is a good way to go about scratching that itch.”
Thile’s sports obsession was obvious to anyone who tuned into his guest-hosting duties on “Prairie Home Companion” the night before the Super Bowl. The mandolin master delivered “Omahallelujah,” a hilarious gospelly sendup about quarterback Peyton Manning.
Thile plans to write a song for every show — it’ll either be related to the city in which he’s performing or something in the news.
Before the Grammys, he offered his own version of Kendrick Lamar’s song-of-the-year nominee “Alright,” cleverly throwing in the word “Calvin” — the name of Thile’s 1-year-old son — in lieu of the N-word in Lamar’s rendition.
Since Thile won’t be delivering a monologue a la Keillor’s “News From Lake Wobegon,” the host-in-waiting wants to have what he calls a “talking” guest each week. In other words, a comedian, actor or poet.
“I love to talk,” Thile said in a rare succinct comment. “I’m nowhere as good at it as Garrison. So I will need help.”
With his wife’s TV show renewed for its sixth season, Thile has no plans to vacate Portland for the Twin Cities. At least not yet. He will host only 13 live shows in the 2016-17 season — with a mere five at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul — compared with 30-some that Keillor typically did. Thile has a one-year contract for “Prairie Home” with options for several more seasons.
“Chris is a charming fellow,” says Fleck, who will tour with Thile as a duo this summer. “He could get almost anybody [music-wise] to be on the show. People from all over the spectrum have high regard for him.”
Know this about Chris Thile: He likes to be with his son.
Sitting on the stage of the Fitzgerald recently, dressed for the cameras in a plaid sport coat, patterned tie and striped socks, the spiky haired musician just glowed when he talked about what he likes to do with Calvin.
“He reminds me that everything is extraordinary. I’ll zero in on these things I find to be extraordinary — coffee, music, wine, tennis, whatever — and Calvin is sitting there looking at a leaf in our yard or feeling blades of grass under his toes.
“It is a reminder to me of something that I think this show has extolled the virtues of since Garrison started it. That there is wonder, there is beauty in the mundane, in the routine, everything is extraordinary. That’s how we should be all the time.”