Mandolinist, composer, singer, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and future host of A Prairie Home Companion Chris Thile talks about his time as a student in Murray, on Sounds Good with Tracy Ross, ahead of his performance October 29 at Lovett Auditorium, benefiting the Murray State Music Department. Also, Asia Burnett speaks with Tina Bernot, MSU Interim Executive Director of Development, about how the concert came to be and how the scholarship will be used.
It got to be that it had been so long since playing in Murray, Kentucky where his folks still live, Chris Thile says as part of his reason for deciding to come to Murray State. He says he's thrilled to begin his solo tour with a hometown crowd.
Though born in California, Thile says he started cutting his teeth as a songwriter/composer on his parent's front porch in Murray. He remembers playing in the autumn as the sun was setting, when the tobacco barns start burning and drying the leaves. He recalls the joy he would feel coming up with a passage of music of his own. This all happened for him in Murray, he says, where he started finding his personal voice.
As a student at Murray State, he remembers being an exhausted student, with 18 music major hours, which required rehearsal time in addition to classroom periods. While practicing the mandolin, he remembers falling asleep while in the middle of Bach's G minor presto. Playing outside of Elizabeth College, trying to impress the girls walking past by memorizing lyrics from popular songs of the 90s and improvising on his mandolin, are also among his memories at Murray State. He remembers playing Irish tunes in the stairwells, sing-a-longs in the lobby and dreaming with friends about bands they would start or music they'd be a part of.
"I really cherish the time that I spent at Murray State. So much of what music means to me. I took my first steps there."
For Thursday's concert, Thile says he'll pull from a solo catalog, with some Bach and some of his own music both old and new. He may play some brand new material he's been working on, from a longer piece, and a few things that are 'done enough' to play.
On becoming the next host of A Prairie Home Companion, Thile says he remembers playing the show for the first time right after moving to Murray, around the age of 15. It was one of the first gigs he flew to and says he grew up listening to the show. The way Garrison Keillor spins a yarn and engages the audience so that they're transported somewhere else are things he admires about the retiring host. "One of his greatest gifts is the ability to help us remember how special things that we might consider to be mundane are. If we just take a step back and think about the last truly wonderful tomato you had... that kind of thing." He says the opportunity to carry on that tradition and to try to make it his own is thrilling.
How the Concert & Scholarship Came to Be
Murray State University Interim Executive Director of Development Tina Bernot says when alumni who make it big come home is really exciting. She says Murray State is really appreciative of Chris to do this concert, talk with students and do a meet and greet for fans in the community, then giving all proceeds back to the university by creating an endowed scholarship fund for the Music Department. The scholarship supports undergraduate students majoring in music. He asked that they not be relegated to a particular concentration or standard orchestral instrument. Thile supports radical concepts and the recipient will need to show remarkable musical promise, she says.
This collaboration has been in the works for a while. When Chris Thile received the outstanding alumni award in the fine arts in 2014 and when being interviewed about the award, he said he really wanted to come back and do something for Murray State. A combination of people and timing made it come together perfectly, Bernot says. She says he feels strongly that Murray played an important part in his success, pushing him to think beyond the norm.