Chris Thile Looks to Past & Future of 'A Prairie Home Companion,' Prepares for New Role as Host

AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
Chris Thile plays his mandolin on stage at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn.

Chris Thile reckons he was in his mid-teens when he first performed on A Prairie Home Companion, with Nickel Creek. And while he figures that youth could hardly have imagined that some 20 years later he'd be original host Garrison Keillor's handpicked replacement to lead the iconic syndicated radio show, Thile isn't sure the prospect would have intimidated him.

"Y'know that little kid was pretty self-aware -- cocky, even," Thile -- who begins his tenure at A Prairie Home Companion on the American Public Radio franchise on Saturday, tells Billboard. "I hadn't actually discovered any real humility. I knew that humility was probably attractive -- but that makes you even cockier, I think. So I think if I went back in time and told that 15-year-old, 'You're gonna be hosting this show in 20 years,' I would've been surprised but I would've been like, 'Cool. Cool, man. All right!'"

Thile says that on the eve of his taking over APCH, he feels like "a kid in a candy shop." Some aspects of the Saint Paul, Minnesota, show will change; the Wobegon Monologue, for instance, will be gone, though poets and spoken-word artists will be part of the show to take up that slack. "I have to play to my strengths, just like Garrison did," Thile explains. "It would be foolish for me to attempt to deliver anything remotely similar to that. I'm not a storyteller by nature, and Garrison is one of the greatest storytellers ever." There will also be a team of writers in place of Keillor, who wrote the vast majority of APHC's scripts during his 27 years helming the program.

But Thile promises that his greatest strength -- music -- will be on full display each episode. "I think I'll open up the musical texture a little bit," says Thile, who will host Jack White and Lake Street Dive during his inaugural broadcast, with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and John Hodgman coming Oct. 22 and Esperanza Spalding and Apama Nancherla due Oct. 29. "The show had predominately been acoustic, rootsy -- and it will continue to be. But in my view, anything good is the only requirement. Anything good, I want it to have a home on our show -- anything. I really mean that."

Thile is also looking forward to the challenge of writing a new song to debut on each episode -- 13 his first season, with an intent to expand to 26 after that. 

"I get that runner's high they talk about, the endorphins or whatever it is -- I feel like this is a musical version of that," he says. "Your knees hurt and you're out of breath, but you have that kind of weird, euphoric feeling, and I feel like that when I get one of those songs done in a week. I'm slow by nature; even if I write something fast, I'll let it sit for a month and hem and haw over it. But Garrison told me when we sat down for one of our first big, long discussions about the show, he said, 'I think you're gonna love having a deadline. You're gonna love having to go with whatever it is is you've got and make the thing and get out there and do it. You'll have time to revise it later." Thile says he may "stockpile" some material but mostly hopes to write each song the week of the show.  

He also promises that while some changes are in store, "APHC" will still familiar to those who have hung with Keillor through the years. "This isn't all of a sudden going to be a super-current, up-to-date, with-it for the millennials kind of thing," Thile says. "That would be artificial in this context. I think the more traditional aspects of the show have always been a wonderful reminder about the people we have been, and that's important. And Garrison, whatever he did on a show, whatever he presented, you can bet your bottom dollar that he loved it. He thought it was good. That will be a guiding principle of the show that we will retain."

And Keillor will also retain a guiding role in the show, according to his successor. "Especially initially, as we were all figuring out what the show would be, he was very present for that," Thile says. "He's since stepped back a little bit, and now I call him for advice because, I mean, what an invaluable tool -- the greatest radio variety show host who ever lived is a phone call away. I can say, 'What do you think about X' and Garrison says, 'Hmmm...,' and we go from there."

Thile has other musical endeavors on tap in addition to APCH. He's finishing up a duo record with pianist Brad Mehldau as well as an album of Bach trio pieces with Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. His Punch Brothers, meanwhile, have started on their fifth album, with "little seeds of or eight so far."