Published July 3, 2020

Chris Thile: This High

By Dale McCurry

Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers playing Telluride Bluegrass Festival. L-R: Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, mandomeister Chris Thile, Paul Kowert and Noam Pikelny. Staff photo.

Among the victims of COVID-19 were the legions of loyal listeners of Live From Here With Chris Thile, the American Public Media-produced NPR radio show, which featured live musical performances in addition to interviews and skits. The final show was June 13th. Live’s Instagram announcement cited the “effect COVID-19 has had on live events” as the chief reason for the cancellation.

“Over the weekend, I was informed that American Public Media will no longer be producing the show,” Thile wrote in an announcement following the cancelation. “While this news fills me with sadness, I understand the decision, as my extraordinary teammates and I conceived of Live From Here as a celebration of live, collaborative audible art, and there’s just no telling when it could be that again.”


Iconic Nashville roots-music agent Keith Case is sitting in a towering aspen grove backstage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Punch Brothers are delivering another tradition-bending set of their unique and delicious take on the current state of the American string band.

“Delivering another tradition-bending set of their unique and delicious take on the current state of the American string band.”

‘I  remember hearing Chris when Nickel Creek was just a kid-band and he was this high.’ Keith holds his hand out, indicating kid-high. He trails off. The silent, but understood, ‘And look at him now’ hangs in the air and shimmers among the aspen leaves. 

And look at him now, indeed.

That Alchemy You Do

Wearing his PB hat, Thile is joined, as masters often are, by masterful players: Gabe Witcher on violin, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Paul Kowert on bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo. Together, these genre-bending musical brothers — string-band instruments in hand — stir up their special blend of bluegrass and classical, roots and rock, jazz and pop — delivered with a stage-presence, movement and orchestration that becomes no less than a ballet with banjos and fiddles.

The Prodigy Son

Punch Brothers is but one of many incarnations of Thile, and he has turned more than Case’s head since he was “this high.”

“I first heard him play when he was 7,” says Hot Rize veteran Pete (Dr.  Banjo) Wernick. “He was already clearly on target to be a musical genius.”

Wernick continues: “Now he’s not only a prolific writer and player-of-the-impossible, but an ebullient, expressive singer and stage personality. He always comes with the sense that ‘anything can happen.’ While, thank goodness, still very much one of us and at home in his role as a spark plug for a whole music scene.”

“When [Chris] was 7, he was already on target to be a musical genius.” ~ Pete Wernick

At home playing traditional bluegrass, Thile won’t be pigeon-holed into any given genre.

In a story in The Bluegrass Situation called “Nine Punk Rock Players that are Reshaping Roots Music” by Britney McKenna, she places Thile firmly on the list: “Known for his work in a number of genres — from the progressive acoustics of Punch Brothers to his meticulous, faithful interpretations of Bach sonatas and partitas — his connection to punk and rock music are numerous.”

Punch Brothers

Live from Here, Live from the 2018 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. L-R: Punch Brothers featuring Chis Thile, as well as Tim O’Brien, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. Staff photo.

Living his world of no-musical-boundaries, Thile often teams with bassist Edgar Meyer to deliver an intoxicating cocktail of traditional and classical. Thile calls Meyer one of the “biggest musical influences in [his] life.” In 2007, Thile and friends debuted “The Blind Leaving the Blind” — his 40-minute suite in four movements, which he has said was written in part to deal with his divorce — at Carnegie Hall.

The Beat Goes On

“The good news is the music remains and others will pick up where we leave off,” says Wernick’s Hot Rize bandmate, Tim O’Brien. “Chris helps make certain of that.”

“The Lighthouse’s Tale” by Nickel Creek — Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins

Dale McCurry

Dale McCurry

Writer and Editor

Following years as a reporter and editor of a handful of weekly newspapers, Dale McCurry was co-founder and publisher, writer and managing editor of High Notes Magazine on the Western Slope of Colorado and The Wires and the Wood in his native Ozarks. Today, he co-wears those hats for NoteWorthy Music as well.

You may also enjoy our Conversations with Tim O’Brien.

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