Multiple Grammy Award-winning Chris Thile, an Oceanside native, first came to local notice as a member of the family bluegrass band Nickel Creek, alongside Sara Watkins (violin/fiddle), and her brother, Sean Watkins (guitar).
They formed in 1989 with Scott Thile, Chris’s father, playing string bass. The Watkins and the Thile families met after Sean Watkins and Chris Thile had mandolin lessons with the same teacher. The oldest of the children, Sean, was only 12 at the time. Nickel Creek played many renowned bluegrass festivals throughout the ’90s, and by mid-decade, the three members of the band had to be home-schooled to accommodate their busy schedule.
In the late summer of 2006, Nickel Creek announced that at the end of that year they would no longer be recording together as a group for an indefinite period of time. The “Farewell (For Now)” tour started in April 2007 and ended in late 2007. In a recent statement, Nickel Creek said that they “wanted to do this in a positive way and take that last lap before our break. We want to see our fans one more time and play with the musicians that have inspired us over the years.”
Thile has performed and recorded with acts as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma, the Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. He also performs in a duo with bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves. Chris Thile and Michael Daves released their impassioned collaboration/conversation Sleep with One Eye Open in 2011. The album was recorded over four days in Jack White’s Third Man studio in Nashville, featuring sixteen traditional tunes by the Monroe Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt & Scruggs.
Thile explains “Mandolin and guitar and two male voices, it’s such a good sound. It was important for us was to get that brother duet thing, but with this Lower East Side punk energy. One of the most enjoyable things about this experience was to underline the slightly delinquent side of bluegrass.”
In addition, Thile plays with the Punch Brothers, alongside Chris Eldridge (guitar), Paul Kowert (bass), Noam Pikelny (banjo), and Gabe Witcher (fiddle).
Thile is an avowed Star Wars fan. “We were at a bar in San Diego,” Thile told starwars.com, “when low and behold, Carrie Fisher appears accompanied by two of her friends. It turned out that she had been invited by a buddy of mine, to whom I let slip, trying to express the depth of my Star Wars fanaticism, that I could play ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’ on the mandolin.... I found myself kneeling down in front of her playing.
“She had a kind of distant look on her face at first, but after 15 seconds, a smile (of reminiscence, I think) was added. At one point, one of her friends leaned over and asked her what I was playing, to which she responded, ‘It’s my theme!’ I finished and launched into another round of apologetic prostration, but she silenced me by thanking me and — oh, how I’ll cherish this memory for the rest of my life — feeding me a piece of bread. ‘Nobody’s ever done that for me before,’ she said. Ms. Fisher, should you ever read this, I can now die happy.”
31 years-old in Autumn 2012, Thile (who has moved to NYC) was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant, which comes with a $500,000 award to be paid over five annual installments.
Late the following year, Thile announced he'd be doing double duty at the Savannah Music Festival (March 20-April 5, 2014), performing a set with Mike Marshall as well as appearing with the Punch Brothers.
Thile's 2014 album with bassist Edgar Meyer, Bass and Mandolin, was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
On February 14, 2015, he guest-hosted in place of creator Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion, on which he first appeared with Nickel Creek in 1996. Creek bandmate Sara Watkins guest-hosted the show in 2011. In summer 2015, it was announced that Thile will become the permanent host after Keillor completes one more season's episodes. Though that same announcement was once made about Sara Watkins, without her ever actually getting the gig.
In June 2016, Thile curated and performed at American Acoustic with Chris Thile at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with guests Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Michael Daves, Gabriel Kahane, Julian Lage, Merrill Garbus, I’m With Her, and Punch Brothers.
It was announced that Thile would take over for Garrison Keillor as host of A Prairie Home Companion on October 15, 2016, for a 30-week season to include live broadcasts, produced shows, and repeats on public radio stations nationwide.