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For Chris Thile, hosting Prairie Home is opportunity of a lifetime

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A Prairie Home Companion Fitzgerald Theater
As he nears the end of his first season, Chris Thile describes his turn leading A Prairie Home Companion as "just what the doctor ordered."
Nate Ryan

A year into his new job, Chris Thile still describes being host of A Prairie Home Companion as the chance of a lifetime.

"The opportunity to sink my teeth a little deeper into it, is, man, just what the doctor ordered," he said. "I am having so much fun." 

Fun, and a whole lot of pressure. 

"Program directors across the country were understandably nervous about the transition," he said. "Didn't know for sure that an upstart mandolinist was the right call to fill in for one of the greatest radio men-slash-storytellers-slash-authors of all time. Which I totally understand and appreciate!" 

Taking over a 40-year-old beloved public radio franchise is tricky, particularly as no one had ever done it before. Thile tries to take it all in stride.

"All the good stuff is hard, right?" he said. "And I kind of feel like a thing's goodness is almost always directly proportional to how hard it is." 

But it seems to be working. Nationwide, 627 stations carry A Prairie Home Companion. In the fall, Arbitron listed it as having 2.6 million listeners every week.

Initially, the current season was only 13 shows. The rest of the weeks were filled with repeats from this season, and earlier programs Thile had hosted. Now, to round out the season, two more shows have been added at the Fitzgerald Theater this Saturday and next.

"I think I am allowed to say, people were just getting antsy with all these reruns," he said, laughing.

He will do 26 shows for the season starting in the fall. Part of the challenge is getting into a rhythm, including doing something that has become a mainstay of the Thile Prairie Home. 

Chris Thile and Jack White
Chris Thile performed alongside Jack White on Oct. 15, 2016.
Nate Ryan | MPR 2016

"The song of the week, that's probably what I sweat the most bullets over," he said. "I never want to just dash something off. And also, you don't want to rely on something cheap, like so topical, get a quick laugh and then never want to play the song again."

From the song Thile wrote for the first show after the election back in November:

To my sweet little boy and dear wife,
For the dream that I call my life,
To mother and dad, and brothers who stand on the edge of a sharp, sharp knife.
I made this for you. I made this for you .... 

"I would say that show in Philadelphia, right after the election, it was really cathartic for me," he said. "It just felt like 'God, I really need to put on a show this week. I really need to get out there and sing some songs with some people and hear some music.'" 

Thile knows that not everyone loves what he is doing with A Prairie Home Companion. To replicate what Garrison Keillor did wouldn't have worked, he said, because the new iteration would have suffered so much in comparison. But he's working hard, and he has brought in a stream of high-profile guests, including Paul Simon and Jack White. 

Thile described the format Keillor created as immortal. "And for me, the prospect of creating and curating within it — I get chills thinking about that."  

He asked that people just give the show a chance. Good, he said, has no demographic.