Music alumnus wins grant from foundation

Chris Thile, a Murray State alumnus and former member of the band Nickel Creek, was awarded the MacArthur Foundation genius grant last month. || Photo courtesy of

Chris Thile, a Murray State alumnus and former member of the band Nickel Creek, was awarded the MacArthur Foundation genius grant last month. || Photo courtesy of

Master mandolin player and Murray State alumnus Chris Thile was presented with a prestigious honor, Oct. 9. Next to his two Grammy Awards, Thile was one of this year’s 23 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

Thile is one of two musicians who will receive $100,000 annually for five years.

“Most of it, I will boringly sock away,” Thile told the New York Daily News. “But I do have a fun, indulgent thing I will do. A new old mandolin just came on the market and I think I’m going to have to pick it up.”

According to the foundation’s website, recipients are selected for their creativity, originality and potential to make important contributions to the betterment of society in the future.

Though he attended school at Murray State in the 1990s, he was born near San Diego, Calif. There, his interest in music sparked and he began taking mandolin lessons at age 5. By age 7, he was actively performing in mandolin and bluegrass competitions.

Because Thile was home schooled, at 16 he was enrolled in courses at Murray State including violin performance, music theory, formal training and composition.

“Chris was interested in some coursework here,” Scott Thile, his father said. “He started by taking just a couple classes, a German class, and enrolled shortly after that in the music program.”

After just two years attending Murray State, Thile moved on to pursue his professional career with his bluegrass band Nickel Creek, which released five studio albums.

In the ‘90s, Nickel Creek received two Grammy nominations for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental. During the Country Music Awards, the band was nominated for Best Vocal Group of the year. After Nickel Creek, Thile created five solo records.

Currently, 31-year-old Thile resides in New York City, when he isn’t touring as frontman for the Punch Brothers, a progressive bluegrass band.

In addition to his career, side projects carry Thile along.

“He’s doing a lot of other collaborative work with other musicians,” Scott said. “Most recently, he did a project with Yo-Yo Ma, who is a well known cellist.”

Other recording and performance partners Thile has worked with include Dolly Parton, John Paul Jones and Edgar Meyer. Also, Thile is working on his first full album of Bach compositions played on the mandolin.

Though no stranger to winning awards, this by far is the most honorable Thile has received.

“He used to win a lot of mandolin competitions when he was younger,” Scott said.

Thile’s music encompasses a variety of genres such as bluegrass, classical music, rock and jazz. According to the foundation’s description, Thile is a “mandolinist and composer creating a new musical aesthetic.”

Scott agrees. “He’s always pushing to do more,” he said. “He feels strongly that music should not be chopped up into different genres, so a lot of his work is just to make the best music that he can.”

Story by Hunter Harrell, Staff writer.