October 16, 2014
In August of 1994, I was writing a piece for the Chicago Tribune about bluegrass. For somebody representing the music’s future, I was steered (and I wish I could recall by whom) to a 13-year-old California mandolin prodigy named Chris Thile, apparently making some ripples among musicians. I called him, he was friendly, we chatted, I pulled some quotes for the piece and didn’t give him any more thought, at least for a couple of months.
That October, I received an advance copy of "Leading Off," Thile's debut on Sugar Hill. While grabbing some lunch at my desk, I put on the headphones to hear this new whiz kid. I wasn’t expecting more than to be pleasantly dazzled by a technically impressive, straight-ahead bluegrass picking prodigy of thirteen. Within 20 seconds of the opener, “Shadow Ridge,” I was sitting bolt upright, goosebumpy and with tears in my eyes. The tone was unique, light as a feather, but with notes so even and sharp that it was like spun iron. The effortless speed made the phenomenal technique instantly apparent, and the line leading into the first theme had an unexpected rhythmic jiggle that announced his instrumental voice as distinctive, surprising, and assured. I was certain I had just heard the next giant of the mandolin. Sugar Hill publicist Judy McDonough answered her phone to hear me practically scream, “Tell me more about Chris Thile!!!”
When I was talking with Chris for the Tribune story previewing this week's Chris Thile/Edgar Meyer concert in Evanston, I realized this was the twentieth anniversary of that moment and my first piece about him (to which he exclaimed, “Oh my God – we have to grab a beer after the show!”, not something I would’ve heard from him at 13).
Watching and hearing Chris’s career fulfill and in fact go beyond that immense promise has been among my most satisfying and exciting musical experiences. To celebrate it, I have gathered the two decades of newsprint I have happily produced, as well as my response to the MacArthur Foundation’s inquiry about him, five years before he received their “Genius” award. And here’s to the next 20 years, 30 years, 40 years…
Don Stiernberg (left) and Chris Thile backstage at Pick-Staiger concert hall in Evanston, IL, after Thile's solo concert, October 15, 2013. Photo by David Royko
Most of these stories originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, as well as Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine, Japan's Moonshiner Magazine, and a few selections from my Music Rambles sorta-blog. After the most recent story at the top, the links are in chronological order.
Oh, That's Bluegrass-Haunting Sound Entering Golden Age - This is an article about bluegrass that includes some brief quotes by Thile, the first time I talked with or wrote about him, two months prior to the release of his debut disc (Chgo Trib 8/21/94)