It's a rare occurrence when Garrison Keillor's long-running radio program A Prairie Home Companion is hosted by someone other than Keillor. In fact, it's only happened twice so far in the history of the show.
This weekend marks the first of two weekends when it happens for the second time in the show's recent history (we'll not count the time it happened during the Gerald Ford administration in the 1970s). Stepping in to fill in for Garrison is someone selected by Garrison Keillor himself. He's a musician you'll know from his work in the bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, as well as his work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and with a consortium of orchestras including the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Oregon Symphony — Chris Thile.
Thile lives in Portland, Ore., where his wife, Claire Coffee, works on the television program "Grimm." And it was at his Portland home that Thile received a voicemail message from Keillor. "That's pretty cool," Thile says "The message is so ... Garrison. It wasn't a Lake Wobegon monologue on my voicemail, but it felt like it was."
Coincidentally, the last time someone guest-hosted A Prairie Home Companion, it was Sara Watkins, Thile's bandmate from Nickel Creek. "I look forward to Sean [Watkins], the third member of Nickel Creek, guest hosting, so we can have a clean sweep of it," Thile jokes.
Thile is quite serious about his role as APHC's fill-in host for the next two weekends, but he keeps it in perspective. "I think the pressure is off, really, because of course I'm not going to host the show as well as Garrison Keillor hosts the show," Thile says. "As long as I can keep the show going on, I'll consider it to be something of a success."
On the Feb. 7 episode of Prairie Home, Thile welcomes poet Billy Collins, bluegrass singer Sarah Jarosz, Minneapolis storyteller Tristan Jimerson, as well as his band, Punch Brothers, with whom Thile will perform. When Thile returns to guest-host on Feb. 14, his guests will be the Earls of Leicester (a Flatt and Scruggs tribute band of sorts), Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and storyteller Elna Baker.
And although there won't be any News from Lake Wobegon, Thile looks forward to being part of that legendary Minnesota community.
"One of the things that's meant so much about A Prairie Home Companion is Garrison Keillor's ability to micro-create, along the lines of someone like J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle Earth, that there's an actual universe being created for us to just poke around in in our moments of leisure," Thile said. "We can go with Garrison to Lake Wobegon, into this world that he's created."
Chris Thile guest-hosts A Prairie Home Companion at the Fitzgerald Theater on Feb. 7 and 14. For more information, visit prairiehome.org.