The phrase “destination television” is often used, but rarely do we hear of “destination radio.” One of the exceptions is “A Prairie Home Companion,” the weekly variety program launched in 1974 by humorist Garrison Keillor that has been airing on public radio ever since. In July 2016 Keillor handed the hosting reins to Grammy Award-winning mandolinist Chris Thile, who grew up listening to the show with his family in Idyllwild and gave his first performance on the show at age 15. Keillor’s choice was well received but also raised eyebrows, largely because Thile is a musician and not a writer or comic. How would he carry on the tradition of Keillor’s monologues, which became an identifying “Prairie Home” cornerstone?.
Now 36 and raising his own family in Oregon, Thile seems determined to honor the cultural legacy of “A Prairie Home Companion” while subtly reshaping it for contemporary times. “A little something for everyone would be the dream,” he says, “without watering anything down or pandering.” The ratio of skits to music has essentially been reversed — there’s more music on the show now, and it’s more diverse — but it’s still the show that spoke loud and clear to him as a child.
“It’s a fairly natural reflection of the way that the world is these days, with how much access we have to the four corners of the world. I think it would make sense that something that calls itself a variety show,” he adds with a laugh, “is really gonna have to step up to the plate and represent real variety. When that [Pasadena show lineup] all crystallized this past week, I took a step back and went, ‘Oh, man! [Chuckles] That is a particularly righteous show right there.’”
The show lineup in question includes Dan Auerbach, Fiona Apple, Robert Finley, Hilary Hahn and Nick Offerman, and will be broadcast from the Pasadena Civic Auditorium Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t include Kendrick Lamar or Radiohead — two acts Thile keenly wants to book on the show someday — but he says Saturday’s “APHC” is “a little like the dream show that I thought of after that first phone call from Garrison saying, ‘I think I’m coming in for a landing as a host, and I think you should do it if you’re up for it.’ You’ve got Dan Auerbach, a famous rock star; Hilary Hahn, one of my favorite concert violinists; Fiona Apple, one of the greatest living songwriters; Nick Offerman, who’s hilarious as a spoken-word guest; and Robert Finley, who’s one of these vocalists who shakes the foundations of the Earth.”
Boundary-pushing has been a hallmark of Thile’s artistry in his collaborations with bassist Edgar Meyer, the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, and even as a youth performing at pizza parlors and bluegrass festivals around Southern California. (Locals may recall him playing with Nickel Creek mates Sara and Sean Watkins at a bluegrass competition at Santa Anita Race Track in the late 1990s.) In 2012 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, for “creating a new musical aesthetic and a distinctly American canon for the mandolin through a lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass orchestrations with a range of styles and genres.”
Now he is pushing himself to write a song a week for “APHC.” Not that songwriting wasn’t already part of his job description — “That’s one of the things I do as a musician” — but never before has he held himself to such a “relentless” deadline.
“Garrison told me, when he first pitched the gig to me, he said, ‘Chris, I think you’re gonna love having to be done with the thing and just sending it off to the world.’ That has definitely proven to be the case. I would say it’s not consciously meant to be a replacement of the monologue. I don’t think you could ever replace the Lake Wobegon monologue. You just have to find other kinds of things to do that ultimately can give people a place to go with their Saturday evenings. I think there’s virtue in escapism, and to provide people with a place to go at the end of their week. We’re in the midst of a pretty tough string of weeks as a country. If I could be a part of providing people with a place to go at the end of these weeks I’d be very, very happy.”
Thile’s album “Thanks for Listening,” due Dec. 8 from Nonesuch Records, collects 10 Songs of the Week written and performed for “APHC.” Sarah Jarosz, Gaby Moreno and Aoife O’Donovan add lustrous harmonies to tracks like “Thank You, New York,” “Modern Friendship” and the graceful “Douglas Fir,” and Thile plays most of the stringed instruments himself — a matter of creative expediency.
“I set very specific things I wanted to do,” he explains. “I didn’t want to trouble musicians that I love and admire to do this exact thing that I would do. I feel like that would be wasteful of people’s abilities. To make sure that the record had a reason for being, it should obviously be different; it should be more than just a cleaned-up version of the live performances. I wanted to take advantage of some of the bells and whistles that the studio has to offer.”
Sharp-witted and politely well spoken, Thile describes the “APHC” format as “this snowy white landscape to do whatever you want to do with, a clean slate every week, which is really exciting.” It offers a near-ideal fit for his creative restlessness and energy.
“It seems a lot like how I thought it would be, actually,” he says when asked how the reality of hosting “A Prairie Home Companion” has squared up against his expectations. “I remember people implying, ‘Oh, this is so different from what you’ve been doing, are you ready?’ I felt a little like, ‘Do you guys know something I don’t? I’m putting on a show, right?’ I’ve been doing that since I was 7 years old. So it really is what I thought it would be, which is I’m in charge of putting on a show every week, and I love [laughs] doing that so much.”
“A Prairie Home Companion” with host Chris Thile and guests Dan Auerbach, Fiona Apple, Robert Finley, Hilary Hahn and Nick Offerman at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena, 2:45-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28; $38/$58/$68. Tickets: (800) 982-2787. Prairiehome.org, christhile.com, visitpasadena.com/events/prairie-home-companion/