David Royko Psy.D

david@davidroyko.com

Chris Thile and the Galt House Fire Alarm

 I initially posted this to the bgrass-L newsgroup. It subsequently was published in Japanese, with photos of the event, in the October 2000 (Vol.17/#12) issue of the Japanese bluegrass magazine "Moonshiner."

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How a mandolinist ended up in a guitar workshop.
By David Royko

The International Bluegrass Music Association's annual Awards Show, trade show and Fan Fest, held these days in Louisville, always includes moments that are as unpredictable as they are delightful. This is but one example, from October 22nd, 1999, and stars Chris Thile.

The mandolinists are ready, except for Ronnie McCoury. Ricky Skaggs says into the mike, "Hey Ronnie, what time is that two o'clock mandolin workshop supposed to start?" It is 2:05, and as Skaggs delivers the good-natured barb, the tardy target enters the room. McCoury, this year's (and the previous six years') IBMA mandolinist of the year, moves toward the stage in the characteristically easy, relaxed gait that could not be more opposite from what flies from his strings.

In front of a packed room of aficionados are the other men to be featured: Skaggs, the bluegrass prodigy turned country music hero turned bluegrass veteran; Roland White, the venerated living legend of class mandolin picking; and the aging prodigy, Chris Thile. Such a term--aging prodigy--is typically meant as a slam to describe that sad phenomenon of the kid who dazzled because of a technique well beyond his or her years, but now, as the trained-monkey novelty fades with young adulthood, what's left is something less than the glittering potential. Mozarts are rare; McCauly Culkans are not.

In Thile's case, his aging is more akin to that of a great bottle of wine, or a great mandolin. A musician who was truly original--and yes, dazzling--as he began his teens, he is now leaving them with an imagination that continues to develop in the hot house of his broadening sophistication. The antithesis of a one trick pony, Thile is a musical force whose peers are only the handful that share the mountain top. Such are the men flanking him this afternoon.

As they leap into Bill Monroe's "Wheel Hoss," the giddy sensation that so often comes with being present at such a summit meeting arrives on cue. The players are loose and enthusiastic, and when the opportunities arise, the audience asks questions arcane enough for the pickers to enjoy.

The second tune, "Bluegrass Part One," moves with a bounce that prompts mass head bobbing from the listeners, while the improvising becomes more animated.

Thile is asked to perform his "Shadow Ridge." While poised to begin, a surprisingly gentle yet no less insinuating siren starts to bleat. Since no instructions are forthcoming, Thile eventually shrugs and flies through the tune. Watching him almost absentmindedly but flawlessly polish off such a fingerbuster while shooting dirty looks to the offending siren is vaguely surreal, as if the hands are functioning independently of the head whose body they share.

The tune completed, Thile enters into a mandolin/alarm duet, acting the mockingbird to the siren, echoing its repetitive song. The audience chuckles, in part perhaps to relieve its own tension.

Now comes an abrupt finale to this mandolin dream team. The fire engines are on the way, and this part of the building is being evacuated, says the public address announcer. The clear-out happens calmly and with ease.

Once outside, however, with hook-and-ladders screaming past, Thile is worried, even mildly agitated. One question from the audience had been, "What instruments do you use?", and Thile admitted that, having broken a string on his main mando while performing at the IBMA Awards the night before, and feeling "too lazy" to change the string, he had turned to his back-up. He had said this lightheartedly.

But now, as everyone waits outside, Thile's heart is heavier. His favorite mandolin, his conduit, the extension of his own body that originates in the soul, could be in danger, sitting unprotected in the hotel room. Anyone who plays an instrument, especially for a living, will know that none of the reassurances offered by fellow evacuees-- "I'm sure it is a false alarm"--help one bit.

"I should play," he mutters, unzipping the mandolin case.

Some folks, once they become professionals, play when they have to. Then there are those who play because they never want to stop. For them, music is as necessary a part of life as oxygen, and for Thile at this moment, it starts to carry him through.

And if the music serves as Thile's natural sedative, for the half dozen people standing close enough to hear, it is an impromptu concert. His personal prescription begins with Bela Fleck's "Up and Around the Bend," continues with an untitled original in F sharp major, and is moving through "Brilliancy" when the announcement comes. False alarm. Everyone--and every instrument--is safe.

As the mandolinists blend back into the crowd and drift their separate ways, Thile runs into guitarist David Grier, who is in the vicinity for a guitar workshop. They are friends and alumni of Richard Greene's 'Grass Is Greener' band. They are also ideal musical partners. With extraordinary techniques at the service of driven imaginations, neither Grier nor Thile are afraid to go far out on musical limbs in search of those surprising little ideas that nobody else would discover.

Within moments of seeing each other, they are on stage in what would have been the waning moments of the mandolin workshop.

The room that had been packed for the mandolinists, then vacated for the fire marshall, is now quickly refilling as Thile and Grier begin navigating through the guitarist's tricky "Eye of the Hurricane," delivering an intensely focused performance. Next comes a relaxed but jaunty jam on "Lady Be Good," and when the pair, looking at each other, nails the last string of notes in perfect unison, the delight on their faces--particularly Thile's--is as infectious, and spontaneous, as the music itself. "Katy Hill" extends this session of musical simpatico into the realm of bluegrass standards, and the duo communicate not just with musical ideas but through facial gestures and body language that includes plenty of laughter. And, with the rest of the guitarists waiting for their workshop to begin, Thile and Grier wrap it up with a languid and greasy serving of "Pork Chops," another Grier original.

But Thile is still looking to pick, and happily accepts the invitation from Grier and his fellow six-stringers to remain on deck as their odd man in. Tim May, Kenny Smith, Sean Watkins, Grier, and Thile settle in for another hour. By the end, "Gold Rush," "Whiskey Before Breakfast," "Bill Cheatham," "Black Mountain Rag," and "Salt Creek" are given sterling performances, and any fan of Chris Thile's must be, if only in secret, a bit grateful to that little false alarm in Louisville.


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More about Chris Thile:

THILE - At 13, mandolinist Chris Thile already is a mature artist (Chgo Trib, Nov 6, 1994) 

THILE - Chris Thile--Deceiver, CD review (Chgo Trib, October 10, 2004)

THILE - Chris Thile, feature (Bluegrass Unlimited, June, 2007) 

THILE - Chris Thile--How To Grow A Woman From The Ground (Bluegrass Unlimited, 2007)

THILE - Chris Thile's Newgrass Gets A Little More Blue With His New Band (Chgo Trib,12-28-07) 

THILE - Ex-Nickel Creek Player's Sound Packs 'Punch'  (Chgo Trib, Feb 17, 2008)

NICKEL - Nickel Creek at Schuba's (Chgo Trib, May 9, 2001) 

NICKEL - Nickel Creek - This Side, CD review (Chgo Trib, August 11, 2002)

NICKEL - Nickel Creek, Why Should the Fire Die? CD review (Chgo Trib, July 22, 2005)

MANDOLIN - The Mighty Mandolin - Bush, Stiernberg, Thile, Marshall (Chgo Trib, Jan 20, 2006)