Taking the reins of a storied radio institution like NPR's long-running variety show A Prairie Home Companion may seem like a surreal moment.
Chris Thile, a singer, composer and mandolinist for the bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers and the host of the traveling variety radio series Live from Here, says the surreal moment came way before he started hosting the show in 2016.
Thile says he was just 15 when he made his first guest appearance in 1996 on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, which Keillor launched in 1974. Thile flew to Minnesota's Fitzgerald Theater, its home base, with his mom, stayed in "the fanciest hotel of my life up to that point and I got to play on the show that I'd been listening to with her and my dad as long as my memory went back."
Then Thile got to host the show for the first time in 2015, the same year Keillor announced he would leave the show and later hand the hosting duties over to him the following year.
"The very first one I did was in 2015 and that was one of the more surreal experiences of my life," Thile says. "The incredible team that Garrison assembled made it a lot less nerve-wracking than it could have been. I think it was more surreal than terrifying. I've been putting on shows since I was 7 and once the red light came on, it was now do the thing you've been doing your whole life. I've never looked at it like I host A Prairie Home Companion. I look at it like now I put on a show and now that the name has changed and the show is very different now, that was always the intention."
Live from Here with Chris Thile makes its first appearance in Dallas this Saturday at the Winspear Opera House featuring performances by Thile, comedian Jamie Lee, storyteller Nora McInerny and musical acts including Esperanza Spalding and The Head and the Heart.
Thile's first appearance on the show all those years ago set him on a path that led to his current success.
"It was something I would say that gave me an early vote of confidence from an unlikely source," he says. "It was all well and good to get props from a local jam session or even from the bluegrass community at large. I had gotten a fair amount of attention from them at that point. So all of a sudden to get a vote of confidence from Garrison and the show, I think that was important in cementing my self-reception. It's like, this is what I should be doing. I've gotten enough affirmation so I'm really all-in at this point."
A Prairie Home Companion aired its last episode in 2017 with Thile as host. Thile launched Live From Here as a traveling variety show that showcases the talents of its cast and guests where the only rule is "whatever you're doing has to be mic-able or you have to be able to put a mic in front of it."
"I think perhaps from the outside or what people perceive to be the task is here's the statue, this radio show, this monument in the middle of some grand plaza and I have to go up with a chisel and slowly chiseled it into a new thing," he says. "I feel like the show that it was is still just as it was and I'm just building a new statue, which is what I've been doing my whole life."
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Thile describes Live from Here as a unique variety show that celebrates the challenge of performing for live audiences, whether it's a stand-up comedian telling a funny story or he and his band playing a bluegrass standard.
"Anytime you make something, you're basically dancing with everything that's been made before, and then I think whenever you present that thing you've made, they enter into that dance with you," Thile says. "It becomes infinitely complicated and beautiful."
Thile says he's looking forward to doing the show for the first time for Dallas and how "the place makes the stamp on the show."
"It's just a delightful experience for me week in and week out," Thile says. "The width and breadth of the sorts of people who come on the show and this one is really interesting."