Chris Thile is the host of “Live From Here,” the public radio variety show that airs every Saturday at 6 p.m. on 89.3 WFPL. The show will be in town this weekend for a live broadcast; WFPL Arts and Culture Reporter Ashlie Stevens caught up with Thile en route to the airport to talk about the show’s evolution since he took over as host.
Answers have been edited for clarity.
Ashlie Stevens: “Live From Here” used to be “Prairie Home Companion,” and you first stepped foot onto the Prairie Home Companion stage back in the 1990s, is that right? Do you remember what your first appearance on Prairie Home Companion was like?
Chris Thile: Yeah, I remember every minute of it. Ah God, I grew up listening to the show, so to actually appear on it was quite extraordinary. My mom I were living in Murray, Kentucky at the time, and we stayed in the St. Paul Hotel. I was 15, I think, at the time and most performances were happening at bluegrass festivals, which are not fancy.
And then all of a sudden we meet this person [former Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor] who’d been basically the master of our family’s Saturday afternoon ceremonies for my whole life.
AS: I can imagine. So then you went on to actually take over Prairie Home Companion in 2016. And I can only imagine that that was kind of a surreal experience.
CT: Surreal is definitely the right word. It was quite a dance at first, carrying the torch, given that all of a sudden it was my show.
AS: So what elements from past iterations did you know going in that you wanted to preserve?
CT: Mainly the format. I love the format. I love the idea that there would be music and spoken word and that they would achieve some sort of symbiotic relationship that will propel the whole thing through its two hours as quickly as possible. That’s always been my sense as a listener is, “just where does the time go? I know the show is two hours but it felt like 15 minutes.” And so that, for sure I wanted to preserve. But I knew the show was going to change substantially.
AS: Sure. So how did you kind of develop the show to make it yours, but then also develop it for a new generation of audience members?
CT: I kind of feel like everyone these days is following the internet into musical omnivorism. I think we’re all we’re all sort of listening to the width and breadth of what’s available seeing as at any moment, it’s one tap of the fingers on the screen away from you. Might as well take advantage of it. If we’re to be sort of shackled to these smartphones, might as well make them work for us.
I think there’s a new breed of music listener arriving that that really has very mercurial tastes; they’re difficult to pin down. But I think increasingly the only job that matters is good music versus bad. Those are the two genres that matter. And I think all of us would say we like the former. And so that’s my goal: to present people with the width and breadth of the good music being made in the world these days.
And also with an alternative to the pessimism about the human condition, about who we are as a species. We’re really embroiled in the midst of a dark time in humanity and we’re not finding much to agree on these days. And I think the good and beautiful things that we make for each other — music being one of those — is something to come together over.
AS: Could you give our listeners just a little insight into how Live From Here comes together?
CT: Well, it’s a little race against the clock. I mean, I know that whatever happens, the show has to be done by you know, 6:00 eastern on Saturday. Whatever state it’s in is its completed state at that point.
It really is changing right up until the moment that you’re hearing whatever it is. We don’t finish the final run of the show, for instance, until about maybe 45 minutes before we go live. Which is just so fun. It’s an absolute roller coaster show.
Right now, I’m in a cab on the way to the airport. And I’d say the song of the week is about half done. And, theoretically, I’ll finish it probably early tomorrow morning. And we’ll send the demo off and we’ll start rehearsing that and all the other music that we’re going to play tomorrow afternoon around 3pm and then and then again, hopefully everything will be ready for you all.
Chris Thile will bring Live From Here to Louisville’s Iroquois Amphitheater on Saturday, June 8 at 6:00 p.m., with guest performances by Bruce Hornsby, Lucius and Sara Watkins. More information and tickets are here.