Chris Thile

Shadow RidgeLeading Off
The Game Is AfootStealing Second
Club G.R.O.S.SNot All Who Wander Are Lost
Scrapple From The AppleInto The Cauldron
On IceDeceiver
Wayside (Back In Time)How To Grow A Woman From The Ground
13:08The Goat Rodeo Sessions
Partita No.1 In B Minor,
BWV 1002: VI. Double
Bach: Sonatas And Partitas Vol.1
Thank You, New York Thanks For Listening
Won't You Come
And Sing For Me

Chris Thile photo 1



Chris Thile playlist


Contributor: David Lewis

Long-time readers of Toppermost may know that I am a massive fan of the mandolin. It’s a marginal instrument, of course – not commonly used though it pops up from time to time. Copperhead Road or Losing My Religion are probably the most prominent mandolin songs in the pop world. Chris Thile is one of the greatest living mandolin players. He was built for the mandolin, nagging his parents for one from the age of two. He was finally rewarded at the age of five. And since then has played almost nothing else, though he plays 39 instruments on one of his albums. He’s a fine singer. He’s a great composer. He’s an equally great interpreter of music. He has stretched the repertoire and the range of the mandolin well beyond what was thought possible.

He came to prominence as a child prodigy in the band Nickel Creek, a bluegrass band whose first gig was in a pizza joint in San Francisco. Nickel Creek were quite successful, but a wandering and curious musician like Thile was never going to be constrained by one band.

Standing on the shoulders of Bill Monroe, Jethro Burns, David Grisman, Sam Bush (boy I’ve written a lot of these toppermosts on mandolin players – see links below, ed.), Mike Marshall, Mike Compton, Dave Apollon … he has transcended all of them and is now inspiring new players such as Sierra Hull and Sarah Jarosz.

It’s worth discussing the specific instrument: the mandolin. It’s a small lute out of Italy, (not a small guitar, which is another type of lute out of Spain). Around 1890, Orville Gibson redesigned it so it had a flat back, and violin stylings. In 1923 and 1924, the acoustician and musician Lloyd Loar was hired by the Gibson company to redesign guitars and mandolins. These mandolins are considered the best ever made – equivalent to a Stradivarius, though the prices are significantly lower. Thile was said to have spent $200,000 on his, paid through a MacArthur Grant (‘Genius Grant’) in 2012. The F5’s reputation was enhanced when Bill Monroe bought his, used, in about 1939. Followers of Monroe found that these had a special tone and with some modification are extremely playable. Connoisseurs speak of the various batches made, and the differences between the 1923 and 1924 models. David Grisman’s ‘Crusher’ is a 1924 model, as is Thile’s. Prior to his acquisition of a Loar, Thile played exceptionally fine mandolins by the maker, Lynn Dudenbostel.

Enough cork sniffing. It’s all very well to own a fine instrument – it’s another thing to play it well. Chris Thile’s background is bluegrass, but he is not constrained by its limits. He is a master pop songwriter, a classical expert, a folk player, bluegrass, newgrass, jazz, rock … and on and on.

His compositions are lyrically superb – even brilliant. He has a way with words that is both quirky yet somewhat universal. He has a sharp sense of humour which is often presented in lyrics both dark and often personal. His songs reflect his own experiences – from his divorce, to his loss of Christian faith and his struggles with that, through other relationship breakdowns, struggles with loneliness, and other such topics.

He launched his solo career with the release of his debut album, Leading Off, released in 1994. This album showed the potential of the then 13-year-old Thile. It closes with a beautiful rendition of the great hymn How Great Thou Art but its opener, a flashy, fast piece called Shadow Ridge really shows it all – the brash young man would get better, somehow, but much of his later work is foreshadowed in here. Byron Berline and Stuart Duncan appear on violin. Pete Wernick plays banjo on the album. Chris’s father, Scott, played bass.

As a child prodigy, Chris built his reputation. By his second album, recorded at the ripe old age of 16, he had already grown as a composer. Stealing Second is a strong collection of originals, with a stellar band, including Jerry Douglas on dobro, Alison Brown and Scott Vestal on banjo, Stuart Duncan (again) on violin and David Grier on guitar. Sam Bush produced it and appears on mandolin as well. This Sherlockian scholar (or Holmesian for you British readers) can’t help but pick The Game Is Afoot, though Clear The Tracks, A Night In Mos Eisley and Alderaanian Melody are also standouts.

Having cleared his throat with two exceptional ˈprentice works, he released the astonishing Not All Who Wander Are Lost in 2001. This is considered by some as his first major work. It features another incredible set of musicians – Béla Fleck on banjo; Jeff Coffin on sax; his Nickel Creek compatriots, Sara and Sean Watkins on fiddle and guitar; Edgar Meyer and Byron House take over bass duties; Bryan Sutton plays guitar; and Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan return. It’s a truly great album and as a Calvin & Hobbes fan (I must stop being so self-indulgent), I’ve picked Club G.R.O.S.S, which is of course Calvin’s club – Get Rid Of Slimy girlS. Jeff Coffin is allowed to shine, and Thile plays beautifully.

In 2003, Chris teamed up with Mike Marshall, who’d made his name as second mandolin with the David Grisman Quintet. Those of you familiar with the Dawg will understand that Marshall is an exceptionally great mandolinist too. Into The Cauldron features Charlie Parker’s Scrapple From The Apple (my choice for this Toppermost) but also traditional folk and bluegrass songs, and a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. We’ll be returning to Bach …

The over-ambitious Deceiver followed in 2004. Featuring those 39 instruments, all played by Chris, it’s a fine pop album, but I can’t help but feel that the reviews that said it lacked focus, or purpose, weren’t far off the mark. Nonetheless, the lovely On Ice shows that the album is maybe better than it seems.

The outstanding How To Grow A Woman From The Ground appeared in 2006. It is one of Chris’s finest records. Featuring the musicians who would become Punch Brothers, it was spawned after a night of “too much wine, steak and commiserating about our failed relationships”. It’s credited as a Chris solo album but it’s really a Punch Brothers album. While the title track (written by Tom Brosseau) and If The Sea Was Whiskey would probably make this list on any other day, Thile’s own compositions, particularly Stay Away, also suggest themselves for inclusion. But I’m going with the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings Wayside (Back In Time), which shows their newgrass chops, and really sounds like a Sam Bush track (in a good way).

A collaboration album with Michael Daves, Sleep With One Eye Open, was excellent, but I only have 10 spots, so listen to it and forgive me for not choosing something from it. The same will go for the excellent team ups with Edgar Meyer and Brad Mehldau. Their omission is purely numerical not personal.

Punch Brothers forms in 2008 and goes on to great success. Chris does somewhat continue his solo career with the next few albums focussing on classical music. In fact, he becomes one of the foremost Bach interpreters in the modern age. His work with Yo-Yo Ma (probably the best modern Bach interpreter) is superb. The project was called Goat Rodeo and featured Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer and Aoife O’Donovan. A goat rodeo is a chaotic event where everything has to go right for it to work. For the song, I have to go with 13:8 – not a reference to the time signature, but to the Epistle to the Hebrews. The story, according to Meyer, is that whenever a certain airline pilot was handed his meal by the stewardess, he’d say “Hebrews 13:8” to her. She finally looked it up and it read “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday and today and forever”. This piece is not “the same” as anything else. And the whole album is astounding.

Equally as astounding is Chris’s solo work on Bach. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Vol.1 shows how the limitations of the mandolin can be used to great effect for tunes composed for the violin. To go back to my summation on the development of the mandolin, I saved mentioning, till now, that the redesign of the mandolin (and the guitar at the time, and the banjo as well) was to encourage their use in classical performance. Of course, Vivaldi and Mozart among others had written for mandolin, but it wasn’t a prominent instrument among classical players. Unfortunately, they didn’t take up the mandolin in the numbers that the Gibson company had hoped. So many of these very fine instruments were remaindered, allowing for their proliferation in folk music. Over 100 years later we saw musician like Béla Fleck on banjo and Chris using their instruments for the purpose they were designed for. Thile ranks with the supreme interpreters of Bach, including Yo-Yo Ma, Glenn Gould and Pablo Casals. Partita No.1 In B Minor, BWV 1002: VI. Double, chosen at random because it’s all excellent, is the selection here.

In 2016, Garrison Keillor retired from hosting the radio show A Prairie Home Companion; Chris Thile was chosen as his replacement. The focus of the show moved slightly towards more music and less skits. And there were some incredible guests: Sarah Jarosz, Wilco, Norah Jones, Sam Bush, Vulfpeck and many others. The name was changed to Live From Here and, though I couldn’t hear it regularly, it was always golden; I say “was” because the show was summarily axed to everyone’s surprise and shock this year. Some of Chris’s musical gems from the show were released in an album called Thanks For Listening in 2017. Thank You, New York is one of the very best songs about that city which inspires so much great music. Gaby Moreno joins him. The lyrical wordplay is some of Thile’s best: “The Apple of my eye of the hurricane”. And having been fortunate enough to visit NYC, this song captures the experience of it, at least for me. And the mandolin flurries are just perfect (see clip below).

With most of the world in lockdown, many found time to reflect on their lives and their values. Thile released the superb Laysongs in 2021. It’s just him and a mandolin – the first time he had done this in the pop/folk/bluegrass realm. He reflects on his loss of faith. His family are Evangelical Christians, and Chris had abandoned the faith as an adult. While he holds these new beliefs genuinely and firmly, he doesn’t see the conversion as coming without cost. He still struggles with doubt. Some of the tracks are based on C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters”. He does another Bach piece. And the three-piece suite Salt (In The Wounds) Of The Earth is unspeakably great. But to end this Toppermost, the closing track, Hazel Dickens’ Won’t You Come And Sing For Me, reflects beautifully on the costs of the loss of community.

At the time of writing, Chris Thile is in his early forties and is at least a decade from peaking. He has a distinctive voice and a seemingly endless musical curiosity. He is, already, firmly in the pantheon of great mandolinists, but also (more importantly) of great musicians. I cannot wait to see where his next steps will take him.









Chris Thile official website

Chris Thile Discography

Nickel Creek official website

Punch Brothers official website

Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer official website

David Grisman interviews Chris Thile (2008)

Partita No. 1 in B minor (complete suite) – live 2013

Inside the Goat Rodeo Sessions
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile discuss & play …

Chris Thile biography (AllMusic)

David Lewis is Australia’s best jazz mandolinist, unless you can name someone else: then he’s Australia’s second-best. In any case, he’s almost certainly top 100. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost, and also plays guitar, banjo and bass professionally. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website. David is also the co-author of “Divided Opinions” and “Politics, Protest, Pandemic: The Year That Changed Australia”, both derived from an established podcast on Australian politics.

Here are some of David’s other posts on these great musicians:
Jethro Burns, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Bill Monroe, New Grass Revival, Punch Brothers

TopperPost #979


  1. Andrew Shields
    Aug 21, 2021

    Great Toppermost on a superb musician. Such brilliant touch and tone.

  2. Carl Parker
    Aug 21, 2021

    You note that the mandolin is a marginal instrument, though the very first gig I went to featured mandolin – insofar as the support to the headline act, Traffic, were Seatrain.
    They featured mandolin virtuoso Richard Greene (though he did also play a fair amount of violin too).
    I’m not overly familiar with Chris Thile, but what I have heard above sounds great.

    • David Lewis
      Aug 22, 2021

      Thanks Carl. Mandolin turns up a bit more often than I perhaps suggest. Levon Helm of the Band was a fine mandolinist and much of the early Jethro Tull repertoire was written on mandolin. Rod Stewart’s Maggie Mae is another iconic mandolin song. And of course Nigel Tufnel brings one out for Stonehenge in This is Spinal Tap! I hope you enjoy Chris. He really takes it far beyond what many thought possible.
      And Andrew. Thanks for your comment. I agree. Unsurpassed touch and tone.

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