Last fall, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile took over form beloved raconteur Garrison Keillor as host of American Public Media’s weekly radio variety show A Prairie Home Companion. Thile, who is best known for his bluegrass quintet, Punch Brothers, has steered away from hokey nostalgia and reoriented the show around American music, bringing plenty of his illustrious friends with him, such as singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, and Phish’s Trey Anastasio. As he prepared for two live shows (May 13 and 20) at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, we asked Thile to look back on his freshman season.
How have fans of APHC adjusted to your becoming host? Thank my lucky stars it has been very positive. But every now and then someone will ask me to do a Guy Noir or a Wobegon sketch. They may think they want that, but they don’t. Garrison could write me a monologue to deliver, but it will not be the same, and because it’s not the same it will be worse.
What worried you the most about filling his shoes? Garrison talked about how the reservoir in Central Park is for him what he perceives APHC to be for a lot of people; every morning he walks around it. I have long been walking around the reservoir that is APHC. It’s like a personal calibration device for people. My dearest hope in this is to make sure that people don’t lose their reservoir.
How have you changed the show? There is more music now—not a dramatic increase, but we’re making sure we play to our strengths. I’m a massive Roger Federer fan, and sometimes I can see in his game the willful development of a tactic or technique that doesn’t come as naturally to him, like fixating on improving the backhand. And I’m thinking, Hit the forehand! It’s what you do!
You’ve been playing for live audiences since you were a child. Does it feel different that APHC has 3.5 million people tuning in? It’s as if there is no back of the stage. I’ve performed in concert halls thousands and thousands of times in my life. But these broadcasts are very different. So even though they look exactly the same, you can feel those people at home and in their kitchen and in their car.
Does APHC rehearse? Many times I’m writing a lyric 30 seconds before I walk onstage. It’s one of the things I love the most about it being live. Like a sporting event, live events are the one thing you can’t have anytime you want them. I really hope radio and television and podcasts keep their eyes on the ball [regarding] the power of live entertainment of all sorts. prairiehome.org.