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New host Chris Thile brings 'A Prairie Home Companion' to Pasadena, talks about the transition

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Singer, mandolin virtuoso, and frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion becomes the host of the show October 15, taking over from its creator, Garrison Keillor. He talked about the creative challenges of his new job with Off-Ramp host John Rabe.

UPDATE 1/17/17: Now you can decide for yourself if Thile has saved the show! He's bringing A Prairie Home Companion to the Pasadena Civic Center Saturday, with guests Ryan Adams, Kacey Musgraves, and Kevin Nealon. The Chicago Trib sure loves the change:

Maybe you wandered away from the show in the later years of founding host Garrison Keillor, who handed his headset to Thile in October. Maybe you never much visited in the first place. But while you weren't listening, this enduring homage to old-time music-comedy radio variety programs, which still draws more than 2 million listeners a week, Thile said, has become must-hear radio for any music fan whose tastes haven't ossified, whose pleasures come from surprise rather than repetition. -- Chicago Tribune 1/5/2017

Chris Thile, singer, mandolin virtuoso, and frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion,  becomes the host of the show October 15, taking over from its creator, Garrison Keillor. His first guests are Jack White, Lake Street Dive, and Maeve Higgins. Thile talked about the creative challenges of his new job with Off-Ramp host John Rabe.

Here you stand on the precipice. I can’t imagine what’s going through your head right now.

 The nice thing is that I don’t have to become the next Garrison Keillor – no one can do that. Garrison is such a titan, such a brilliant creative man. And the ways in which he is brilliant and creative are inimitable. There is no one that can be like that. Now he created a show that is every bit as brilliant and creative as he is. The show, I think can live beyond his direct involvement. I think it’s like a piece of music that can live through all kinds of development and all manner of various interpretations.

What is your job as a host?

My job is presenting people with the most compelling two hours of entertainment and art that I am capable of presenting. For me this is a two hour trading post, on air trading post for people who make beautiful things for other people.

What’s your job? What’s your role in it? 

Just saying, “Hey, look over here this person made a beautiful thing.  Hey, would you share your beautiful thing with us. Excellent!” Then I’m going to sit back and listen to them deliver that beautiful thing. I’m going to try to make some beautiful things myself.

And how much should you be doing of that in an ideal show?

Chances are I’ll be responsible for about the same amount of music that Garrison was responsible for –maybe a tiny bit more. He came up with most of the ideas as far as what the house band and he delivered. He did a lot of that, and I’ll be doing that too. Certainly a lot more hands-on in the development of that music. That’s right in my wheelhouse.

Keillor and "A Prairie Home Companion" in the 1970s.
American Public Media
Keillor and "A Prairie Home Companion" in the 1970s.

What were the consultations with Garrison like? How often did you meet him? Where did you meet him?

I was on tour with the bassist Edgar Meyer, when Garrison called me first to say, “Hey, I’m thinking about getting out of radio.” He presented the idea as out of the blue as it came, also struck me as somehow exactly what I want to do. That sounds perfect. I called him the next morning to make sure I hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing. We have been in fairly regular touch ever since. I’m going to call him tomorrow; I have some questions that have built up in the last month or so.

Like what?

I want to pick his brain about how he would structure the week in terms of content generation and traffic directing. You know to what extent he has his ear to the ground for time or place specific material. So, one of the things I’m most excited about is this deadline. I have to come up with a certain amount of material – including roughly four or five minutes of brand new music every week, no matter what! And it’s so fun to sit there on Sunday or Monday, and go “Okay, what’s it going to be?” But I want to pick his brain about how he approached it.

Like when he started to worry?

I’ve never seen him worry. I don’t think. I have never seen him visibly concerned by anything. I’ll try to learn from that as well. He has this thing, and I feel like I have this as well – at a certain point you know a show is going to happen, you have to do it. There is not another option. Which is the wonderful thing about live performance. Something is going to happen, it has to. Here we are, here we all are… Putting on a show is what I love to do more than anything in the world. I have been doing it since I was seven. I love it.

A more sensitive question: were you worried at all that he was going to interfere in the production and did you have a conversation about him about that?

Whenever you collaborate when any strong artist you are going to have to establish a give and take kind of relationship. You need to have wide-open ears, and conversely you need to feel like you are being heard. Sure, I worried about that. Garrison is the formidable creator of things, but Garrison has said from the very beginning, “You have to make this yours, you have to make it the way you hear it.”

And he has told me, “Look I’ll weigh in when I feel like you might be going astray – but if you think I’m wrong about that give it a try, and we’ll talk.”

I did an interview with Bill Kling and Garrison Keillor, and I asked Garrison what his involvement was going to be, and he said “I’m going to be a grey eminence, and just interject every once in a while.” And I asked Bill about that and he said, “Yeah, right!”

Any critique of his so far has been him worrying that I’m doing my best Garrison Keillor imitation.

How aware are you thinking about the audience question? You’re the new host of his show. You don’t want to tick off the people who absolutely loved Garrison, but you want to do your own thing. Also the numbers for Prairie Home have not been as strong as they used to be. We want new listeners. We want you to be bringing in people with new music.

It’s going to be tricky, of course, people want their cake and they want to eat their cake.  They want things that are comfortable and familiar. The show has had a steadying influence on people’s lives – I know it has on mine. Almost a church-like experience for people – I want to make people don’t lose that aspect of the show.

I adore public radio. It’s been such a huge part of my life, and I feel like a lot of people my age don’t feel spoken to almost as if they feel that’s just not their life that is being discussed. Having a 35-year-old host of Prairie Home Companion, will certainly be a step toward them being spoken to, but by no means do I want to stop speaking to someone born and raised in Minnesota who is 65.

Can he do it? Listen for A Prairie Home Companion with new host Chris Thile Saturdays at 6p and Sundays at noon on 89.3-KPCC

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