Chris Thile: Radiohead would be ‘dream guest’ on A Prairie Home Companion

When Garrison Keillor, longtime host of the famous radio show, told his fan Chris Thile that he wanted him to take over, Thile was astonished but the mandolin maestro is getting used to the idea, and even planning some changes

Sunning oneself on a bench near the Central Park reservoir, basking in New Yorks first true spring day, is as fine an occasion as any to erupt into poetry. And so Chris Thile mandolin whiz and Punch Brothers bandleader leans forward and launches into a limerick, grinning all the while:

There once was a mandolinist named Thile
Who played mandolin widely and freely
He played around town
While riding around
On a bicycle doing a wheelie

Its author, Garrison Keillor, chuckles in recognition as he polishes off a hotdog nearby. There werent a lot of rhyming opportunities there, he recalls in his low, dulcet drawl, one recognizable to over three million public radio listeners each week.

Thile can recite those lines on a dime, but theyre nearly old enough to vote. Keillor scribbled them alongside his autograph in 1996, on the set of his famous live radio program A Prairie Home Companion, when the 15-year-old bluegrass prodigy Thile made his first appearance. By then, the wholesome variety show was already a guidepost in Thiles burgeoning career with Nickel Creek.

My family listened to it every Saturday that we were around a radio. I tried to imitate him when I was seven years old and performing for people for the first time, says Thile, now 35. To actually be on the show, I was awe-struck in a way, but it also felt like exactly what was supposed to happen.

Keillor appears to agree. In July, he will retire as host of A Prairie Home Companion, ending a formidable tenure that began in 1974 and has spawned over 1,400 episodes, parodies on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, and a Hollywood comedy starring Meryl Streep. His newly appointed successor is Thile,who by nowhas several Grammys and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant under his belt.

Im stepping away before I am asked to or before anyone says, How long are you gonna keep doing this? Keillor, 73, explains drily. He smooths down his natty tan linen suit, trademark red socks peeking out below, with a languid fluidity wasted on radio. Ive been around people who stayed too long. I do not want to be one of them. Im from the midwest, and we have a very strong wish to not be a problem.

Under Thiles direction, which begins on 15 October,A Prairie Home Companion will be retooled into a heavier musical focus than Keillors vaudevillian balance of skits and monologues. Each week of Thiles inaugural 13-episode season, he will create around 30 minutes of new music and foster new collaborations between guests. Thile is game to tackle comedy himself, and has already demonstrated chops at singalong spoofs and acidic one-liners, but Keillors staple segments will exit with him most famously, The News From Lake Wobegon, genial dispatches from his fictitious Minnesota hometown that rivals Mayberry in its placidity and salt-of-the-earth kinfolk.

The pivot plays to Thiles agility as a musical collaborator he has recorded with Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma, and his band Punch Brothersmelds classical and bluegrass traditions with spry modern rock.It also capitalizes on themarquee names at his disposal;this February, in his two-week trial run as host, he arranged a coup performance by Paul Simon.

Keillor first broached the idea to Thile last spring. Im never totally speechless, which is much to my discredit, but I was as close as I could possibly be, Thile says. Garrison, I remember I called you back the next day and ran through the details, just to make sure I hadnt been making them up in my head.

Keillor nods. I picked Chris because he would take the show in an exciting musical direction with a lot of energy, he says. As on the airwaves, hes deliberate in repose,generally taking a two-second runway before replying. The biggest mistake we couldve made would be to find some tall guy with glasses in his late 30s who tells stories about his upbringing in the midwest. That really wouldve been deadly.

Keillor calls himself completely burnt out by his four-decade pursuit of new music. Chris is still curious about whats out there. I lost that, he says. If I walked by an open door and I heard somebody sitting onstage playing a guitar, I would keep walking. Sorry! He laughs. I want to eat my supper in silence. I do not want to hear about somebodys love troubles. I wish them well in the abstract, but I do not want to be part of it.

Thile proves this point immediately. Garrison, you wouldnt think to ask a band like Radiohead or an artist like Kendrick Lamar, but those would be dream guests for me, Thile tells him earnestly. The musician, whom this paper once likened to a cross between Jude Law and Jonny Lee Miller, sports dark denim, silver braces, and a vibrant pair of red socks to match Keillors.

On this idyllic Sunday, Keillor and Thile are renewed in confidence; last night, they co-hosted an episode at the opulent Town Hall theater in Times Square. It was a sprawling, collaborative two hours; Keillor intoned a new parody of Poes The Raven that excoriated Donald Trump (Atop his head a wig peroxide, swooping in a clump / Quoth the raven, Donald Trump) while Thile split up in silent hysterics behind him. Thile performed Miss Manhattan, a flirtatious ode to his former home penned the day before, and joined guest singer-songwriters Aoife ODonovan and John Fullbright in numerousduets and skits. The show was proof of the rightness of this, says Keillor.

ODonovan, a folk-pop artist based in Brooklyn, first appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in April 2012. She considers Thile a logical heirto the show.

What he and Garrison share is a brain unlike many brains in the world. They have an uncanny knack for words, for timing, just making the right decision at the right time, she says. Plus, the fact that Garrison is giving his blessing to have the show continue without him, to me, demonstrates something all musicians should aspire towards: believing that the thing you created is bigger than just you.

Linda Fahey, senior director of content at Folk Alley and a former associate producer of A Prairie Home Companion, admits she was confused when she learned Thile would replace Keillor.

Hes no question a musical genius, but as far as being the host: where is the comedy, acting and writing going to come from? asks Fahey, 50. I have a hard time seeing any one person filling Garrisons shoes and continuing A Prairie Home Companion as the same type of show its been for all these years. But maybe it doesnt have to be.

Daniel Sheehy, director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, echoed the praise for Garrison, calling his work a a revered showcase of Americana culture. For many of us, A Prairie Home Companion is a beloved force that disarms our defenses, said Sheehy. It is fun, deep, and therapeutic.

Thile will tape five or six episodes in the shows longtime home base the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, Minnesota and make the rest around the country, includingNewYork. For now, he will commute from Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, actor Claire Coffee, and their 11-month-old son, Calvin.

Keillor is already plotting a bustling retirement in Saint Paul and beyond. His victory lap concludes on 1 July at the Hollywood Bowl in California (Streep will sing at the penultimate gig in Lenox, Massachusetts, he says), and then he will resume touring later that month on his annual summer roadshow. He is also working on a movie project, his memoir and a weekly opinion column for the Washington Post.

One project Keillors not planning: upcoming cameos on A Prairie Home Companion. I dont think so, he decrees. It surely comes to the disappointment of his fans,who can be quite an ardent troupe; several have described their devotion to me as like religion.

Keillor, however, shrugs off such lofty comparisons, and points to his favorite fan letter.

It was from a boy in New York. He loved The News from Lake Wobegon because when it came on, his parents would stop yelling at each other, he says nonchalantly as Thile gapes. Here was this thing that was part of his life every week. Of course you would become attached to that.

Keillor points to the gleaming body of water next to us, and the froth of people pacing its perimeter. Im attached to the reservoir in Central Park because Ive walked around it so many times. I can remember who I walked around it with, I can remember different times I felt different ways, and here it is and its always the same, he continues. It doesnt mean I come out here every day. Its not my religion. I dont pray to the reservoir. He pauses, then with impeccable timing: Not yet.

Thile mulls this for a few moments, then brings his mentors metaphor home. Im just ready for this challenge, he says. The sort of place that can center a person, that routine, I consider a very great responsibility. I want to make sure people dont lose their reservoir.

  • A Prairie Home Companion is broadcast on public radio every Saturday at 6pm EST. Details here

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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