Thursday, October 20, 2016

Minnesota folksy appeal: A Prairie Home Companion, 2.0

New APHC host Chris Thile (left) and Nashville-man-about-town
Jack White share a music jam. 

The brilliant musician Chris Thile, tapped as the new host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," made his debut last weekend. As the successor to creator Garrison Keillor, it will be Thile's task to maintain the radio show's Minnesota-folksy appeal while also drawing a younger audience.

Over the course of his first two-hour APHC, Thile gave props to all things Minnesotan in praising many of its sports teams – the Vikings, the Lynx, even the losing Twins – and also praised Prince and Bob Dylan, apple cider and autumn leaves.

During a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Thile (pronounced Thee-lee) admitted that with the upcoming presidential election that's less than three weeks away, everyone needs a means for escaping the rancor and madness that's been brought on by Donald Trump. "People out there need a break, man," he said. "Our fall has been hijacked by a presidential election. It's a very important election, and I will certainly be addressing that on the show, but hopefully I can provide people with a little bit of relief, too. Music and laughter: those are top-shelf forms of relief, I say."

During his debut show, Thile wasted little time taking jabs and poking fun at both major-party candidates, Trump and Hillary Clinton, while admitting that he, too, had once used an unsecured e-mail account and had not paid income taxes for 18 consecutive years – "after that I graduated high school."

The 36-year-old Thile, a Grammy Award-winning mandolin virtuoso, singer and songwriter who cut his chops in bluegrass music with the progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek and the acoustic folk/progressive bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers, has the unenviable task of replacing the legendary and literate Keillor.

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, shown at the 2015
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.
He wants to preserve the appeal of APHC, but
also "really blow the doors off on the musical front."
Thile made his first appearance on "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1996, at age 15, and he's been back numerous times – as a solo artist, with Nickel Creek, and with Punch Brothers. Twice in 2015 and on two occasions earlier this year, Thile was the show's guest host.

While the 2012 MacArthur Fellow not only wants to preserve the appeal of "A Prairie Home Companion," which made its public radio debut in 1974, Thile also has been charged with revising its structure and broadening its reach to a younger demographic (the average listener of APHC is 59 years-old). If his first show is any indicator, there will be less talk and more music.

Admitting that he wants to "really blow the doors off on the musical front," the music guests for the first weekend included "Nashville-man-about-town" Jack White, whom the New York Times Magazine once called "the coolest, weirdest, savviest rock star of our time," and Brooklyn-based hip jazz-soul vocal combo Lake Street Dive.

As for Thile's own music tastes, they range from Bach to Bill Monroe to hip-hop. So, anything seems possible and it's likely that Thile will welcome folksingers, jazz musicians, soul revivalists, roots-rockers and bluegrass bands. This week's guests include folk-based singer/songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, evocative American singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, and comedian John Hodgman, formerly of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

"I want the show to be a home for the breadth of the good music being made in the world," Thile told Rolling Stone. "My musical output has been consistently acoustic, but my taste has not. I love everything. As long as it's good, I'm in."

While A Prairie Home Companion is a very well-known and established public radio brand whose name is easily recognized – both in Minnesota and beyond – indeed, Thile has big shoes to fill. Yet, I like his youthful energy and enthusiasm – it's different than Keillor's – not to mention he's a better singer. I think given a chance, he'll do just fine – especially in expanding the depth of the musical offerings. If Thile brings in a younger audience as it is hoped he will, that's a plus that I'm sure will please everyone.

Note: A Prairie Home Companion is broadcast live from the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, Minnesota, produced by American Public Media, and airs via National Public Radio (NPR) on Saturdays from 5-7 p.m. Central Time (10 p.m. GMT) – and at various other times – and selected shows are streamed live at APHC is available to listen via podcast, too.

Cover photo: Courtesy of, Google Images.
Photo of Chris Thile at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass by Michael Dickens, © 2015.

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