Last night, the "news" broke that Chris Thile - singer/songwriter and mandolinist extraordinaire - is a genius. I put quotations around the word "news" because, to anyone in the folk, bluegrass, or Americana worlds, it's been common knowledge for years now that Chris Thile is a genius. The man has threatened records for how fast a mandolin can be played. He's not all just impressive speed and dexterity. When Nickel Creek - the band of geniuses with whom he cut his teeth as a child and adolescent (the first 20 years of his career) - split, he went off on a solo career melding chamber music, jazz, and bluegrass. Bela Fleck has done this, of course, but what Thile did with The Blind Leaving the Blind (here's Movement 1) was a sort of freakish musical expression. A string band suite in four movements, which premiered at Carnegie Hall. Not too shabby for a bluegrass picker.
Since then, his Punch Brothers - formed originally as How to Grow a Band, to back him for his stirring solo album How to Grow a Woman from the Ground - have basically created a completely new style of music which builds on a traditional stringband concept, stretching it in every direction it has no business going, and doing so efficiently and artfully.
The MacArthur Foundation gives out $500,000 grants to people who have no idea they've even been nominated, much less that they're being seriously considered. MacArthur Grant winners have no clue the Powers That Be have an eye on them til they suddenly get a call. Apparently, Chris Thile ignored that call when he got it, thinking instead it was election season robocalls. Woops. Thankfully, he finally answered and discovered he had been awarded the prestigious "Genius" grant.
At any rate, congratulations to Mr. Thile for being one of the 23 geniuses in fields ranging from scientific discovery to the arts! We've always known you were a genius, but now you get a large sum of money to prove it. I, for one, can't wait to hear the music it facilitates.
photo: photo: Scott Wintrow/Getty Images