Famous alumnus prepares for cross-country tour

Photo courtesy of Associated Press Chris Thile has been playing the mandolin since he was 5 years old.

Photo courtesy of Associated Press
Chris Thile has been playing the mandolin since he was 5 years old.

The faces that pass along the sidewalks of Murray State are destined to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, business people – the normal cliches. As cliche as it may sound, there is truth in the commencement-like statement. A prime example of this is the success of a former student turned musician, Chris Thile.

Chris is best known as a member of the popular bluegrass band Nickel Creek and as the front man for the progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers.

Chris is the son of Scott Thile, instrument technician for the music department on campus. Scott said Chris’ interest in music started at a young age and developed throughout the years.

“A teacher of Chris’ played in a band called ‘Bluegrass ect.’ and my wife and I discovered this place to go see music on Saturday nights and it was a fine place to bring kids,” Scott said. “With him growing up seeing them play, he started to take an interest in the music. (Chris) ended up taking lessons from his teacher. He was invited up on stage every now and then at 6 or 7 years old.”

Learning from experiences on stage with Bluegrass ect., Chris was chosen by a bluegrass promoter who was putting together a festival.

The promoter wanted a band which involved children, therefore Chris, Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins formed Nickel Creek in 1989.

The group began traveling and playing shows across the country. Because Chris traveled to play shows with the band, he was home schooled. Likewise, he was able to enroll in classes at Murray State at age 16.

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

Though Chris completed courses in violin performance, music theory, formal training and composition, he took the weekends off with his father and other members of the band to play shows across America.

The traveling caused chaos in both Scott and Chris’ schedules.

“We were working all over the country with Nickel Creek,” Scott said. “I was working (at Murray State) during the week and flying out on the weekends to go to play bass for Nickel Creek and it was exhausting. So I decided I couldn’t do that anymore.”

Despite Scott’s decision to quit playing with Nickel Creek, 18-year-old Chris decided to quit school to travel with the band as it continued to prosper.

In the late ‘90s, Nickel Creek received two Grammy nominations for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental. During the Country Music Awards, it was nominated for Best Vocal Group of the Year.

Following the success of Nickel Creek, Chris began working on solo albums and collaborations with artists outside his genre such as Yo-Yo Ma, Dolly Parton, John Paul Jones and Edgar Meyer.

He also released a full album of Bach compositions played entirely on the mandolin.

In November 2007, Nickel Creek played its last show together at the Ryman in Nashville, Tenn., before taking a hiatus.

Also, in October 2013 Chris was one of two musicians to receive the MacArthur Foundation genius grant. The grant included a $100,000 award annually for five years.

Now, 25 years after the founding of Nickel Creek, the band has decided to tour together again. Eight of the 27 shows scheduled for the spring tour have already sold out.

“Chris is really excited and they have a pretty busy tour,” Scott said. “Now that they have had other experiences with their other projects, it will be exciting to see what they do together.”


Story by Hunter Harrell, Features Editor