Sunday, November 6, 1994
MUSICAL WUNDERKIND: At 13, mandolinist Chris Thile already is a mature artist.
By David Royko
Child prodigies certainly are fun. Little and cute and always dazzling for their age, their only problem is that they grow up. Then they are big and maybe not so cute, but most damning, they are not so special anymore.
Rare is the prodigy who fulfills their promise, but one who seems headed that way is 13-year-old Chris Thile.
A fiddler since age 8 and a guitarist since age 9, Thile is most impressive on the instrument he has been playing since age 5, the mandolin. He possesses a glittering tone that, when combined with his rhythmic precision and lightning fingers, moves him into the realm of the all-time mandolin masters, at least in terms of technique.
He further distinguishes himself as a talented writer, performing primarily his own compositions on his new CD.
Of course, the musical highway is littered with the wrecks of careers that began with absurd expectations that could never be met. All indications suggest that Thile (pronounced thee-lee) will be among those who not only survive, but thrive. In fact, if he were to stop developing today, Thile already would be a musical force, having escaped the trap of being an aging prodigy by graduating into full-blown artistic maturity while still a boy.
This depth is what makes Thile more than the usual whiz kid with hot licks. Not surprisingly, he is creating buzz among musicians. "Leading Off," his new CD on Sugar Hill, is the most exciting bluegrass solo debut since Bela Fleck's "Crossing The Tracks" appeared in 1979.
Bluegrass educator and banjo star Pete Wernick, best known for his work with the band Hot Rize, has watched Thile develop in recent years and is effusive in his praise for the youngster.
"I don't normally use the word 'genius,' but I have to say I think he's a musical genius, as much as I can define such a thing," Wernick says. "He has a quick mind, he's very imaginative and he has great dexterity to go with his musical mind."
The Colorado musician is so impressed that he made room in his crammed schedule to produce and play on "Leading Off." By accepting the task, Wernick was taking on more than he expected. To call Thile a bluegrass player is not completely accurate, because his approach adds aspects of jazz and new acoustic music, spawning a bluegrass amalgam bursting with more individuality than many fine players ever attain. It also means the music is not always standard bluegrass fare.
"Some of the material is really challenging," Wernick says. "It's not like recording an old favorite, where you just knock it off. These pieces took painstaking preparation to make sure the players could play them as well as Chris can. It was really very challenging material for everybody."
While Thile certainly revels in the tangles of pieces like "Chris Cross" and "Trail's End," where he wanders furthest from traditional bluegrass into progressive waters, other numbers are downright catchy, like "Slime Rock" and "Holdin' Down The Fort," all from "Leading Off".
"I actually encouraged him to write some simpler tunes that others might want to learn," says Wernick. "Having these really ambitious things coming out of the same guy who can write these instantly appealing tunes is great, because these are two opposite poles. Usually someone can do one or the other. Chris can do both."
Many fellow mandolinists share in this view of Thile. One is grammy-nominated Chicagoan Don Stiernberg. "Its clear to me that he understands bluegrass music very, very well, and the happy part is that he is not only playing it, he's adding to it by being a composer," Stiernberg says. "He's pushing the envelope of bluegrass music, which for someone that young, is a nice thing."
One might expect such a child to be arrogant, maladjusted, socially backward, not able to just relax and be a kid. On all counts, those assumptions would prove wrong. While some things about Thile may be out of the ordinary, such as growing up without a television, or being home-schooled by his mother, in most respects he is your average 13-year-old California kid. He loves sports, is a star little league pitcher, has no time for girlfriends yet, and has the trademark squeaky voice of all 8th-grade males. He even gets into trouble from time to time.
When it comes to his CD, however, Chris is very serious. Besides Wernick on banjo, Thile is joined by a roster of heavyweights including fiddlers Byron Berline and Stuart Duncan, guitarist Scott Nygaard, banjoist Dennis Caplinger, and mandolinist John Moore. Thile's friend and bandmate Sean Watkins, also a teenager, joins on mandolin, and his father, Scott Thile, plays bass.
"It was amazing, absolutely incredible, for me to watch my favorite musicians, who I've listened to ever since I was six, playing on songs that I wrote," says Thile. "Listening to them do all their dynamic stuff that they do on other peoples' albums for my album made me go 'Yeah! Alright!'"
To scale such heights at 13 brings certain dangers, says Wernick. "I can point out too many examples of very talented musicians who get their lives ruined. First, the lifestyle of being a musician is difficult. It's erratic in all sorts of ways. The music business itself can be pretty cruel. It can set you up and knock you down.
"But also, at this time of his life, he gets positive attention for almost anything he does. Everything gets magnified because of his age. Then there are other people who resent him because they think he's getting too much attention because of his age, and he'll have to try doubly hard to please those people. So everything is out of whack."
This is when having a strong mother and father comes in handy. "In Chris' case, he's got his parents, who are very ready and willing to tell him when he's out of line," says Wernick. "On the one hand, they're thrilled and bewildered like everybody. On the other hand, they recognize their responsibility to him as parents."
Kathy Thile has little trouble keeping things in perspective. Chris is her 13-year-old son first, musical prodigy second.
"We try not to think of it too much, I guess, because it's real important that we focus on the areas where he's not a musical genius," she says. "Like room cleaning. And he's distinctly not a genius in that area."
[Photo: Chris Thile, 13, has been playing the mandolin since he was 5; he's also a songwriter.]
The following was edited from my original copy that I submitted to the Tribune. It made sense to cut it for the piece, but I like the anecdote, so here it is, with the lead-in sentence that remained in the piece (to put it into context):
...He even gets into trouble from time to time. "I was in Branson to do a gig, and we really weren't paying much attention to the time," says Thile. "Me and my friends were on this amusement park ride at Silver Dollar City, and we started spitting down on the railroad tracks, trying to see who could actually hit the rail. The guys running the ride got mad at us, and kicked us out. The funny thing is that if we hadn't been kicked out, we would have been late to our show."
And here's one more cute snippet that was clipped prior to publication, part of Pete Wernick's quote about the work that went into recording Thile's tunes:
"It was really very challenging material for everybody. Very complicated in terms of form. I wanted to honor the tunes, because they deserved a first class effort. Also, I'd hate to tell a 13-year-old kid that I can't play his tunes!"
More about Chris Thile:NICKEL - Nickel Creek at Schuba's (Chgo Trib, May 9, 2001)