A new description of Chris Thile would be hard to come by, especially since all the good superlatives have already been used. They called him a child prodigy when he was 12 years old and making his first solo album, 1994's Leading Off..., and a virtuoso when he was 20 and putting out his third solo effort, 2001's Not All Who Wander Are Lost. On the heels of those descriptions came effusive adjectives for his talent with a mandolin, words like "brilliant," "bold," "utterly fantastic," and "staggering." Heady stuff for someone who was barely out of his teens. But to hear Thile's joyful playing, or to see his fingers fly with easy speed and agility over his mandolin as they did when he appeared with his bandmates from Nickel Creek on the 35th CMA Awards Show in 2001, is to learn firsthand that the enthusiastic praise aimed at the young mandolin player wasn't just hype.
In addition to his work as a solo artist, Thile has been part of Nickel Creek, with siblings Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins, for more than ten years. He helped Nickel Creek earn a pair of Grammy nominations for a self-titled debut album, which was released by Sugar Hill in 2000 and claimed a niche in Billboard's country Top 20. Their sophomore effort, 2002's This Side, later nabbed the group's first Grammy win for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In 2001, Thile took home the title of Mandolin Player of the Year from the Instrumental Bluegrass Music Association, while the band was honored as Instrumental Group of the Year. He and his bandmates were nominated that same year for the CMA's Vocal Group of the Year and the Horizon Award.
Thile started earning awards and championships years ago. He took home top honors in mandolin competitions in both Arizona and Kansas when he was 13, a time when he also received a nod from the International Bluegrass Music Association with a nomination for Player of the Year. He and Nickel Creek played during a Grammy Awards ceremony while backing country superstar Dolly Parton, and Thile and Sara Watkins made appearances in a Parton music video. Country Music Television also took notice of Thile and his fellow bandmembers, airing videos of the band's "When You Come Back Down" and "Reasons Why."
Initially, Nickel Creek also included Scott Thile, the mandolinist's bass-playing father. The elder Thile bowed out after the group launched its first album. The younger Thile acted as producer on Not All Who Wander Are Lost. Among the album's guest artists were the other two-thirds of Nickel Creek, Edgar Meyer, Jeff Coffin, Union Station's Jerry Douglas, and Béla Fleck. One of Thile's enduring influences, John Moore, was one of his first mandolin instructors during Thile's childhood in California and plays in the band Bluegrass Etc. Moore was formerly a member of California, a first-rate bluegrass band, along with Dan Crary and Byron Berline. (The trio Thile formed with the Watkins siblings borrows its name from a song written by Berline.)
Through this flurry of activity, Thile continued to record on his own, releasing Deceiver in the fall of 2004. The album showed him exploring a more progressive and experimental side of bluegrass music, instead of just the hotshot mandolin playing that marked his prior albums. The more organic-sounding but still eclectic How to Grow a Woman from the Ground followed in 2006 and earned Thile a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental Performance. He recorded the album with the backing band the How to Grow a Band (with whom he later toured), which comprised Noam Pikelny, Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, and Greg Garrison. The group officially changed its name to the Punch Brothers in 2007 and debuted Thile's ambitious 40-minute, four-movement suite, "The Blind Leaving the Blind," at Carnegie Hall. The entire suite, along with a handful of other tracks, appeared on 2008’s Punch.
The year 2008 also saw the release of a collaboration for Nonesuch with Edgar Meyer titled Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile. A new Punch Brothers collection, Antifogmatic, arrived in 2010, followed by 2011's Sleep with One Eye Open, a collaboration with bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves. Another collaboration with Meyer, Bass & Mandolin, appeared in 2014. ~ Linda Seida