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ARTICLE: Chris Thile’s Dance of Faith and Doubt

Terry Roland
San Diego Troubadour

June 2024

There is something fierce, bold, and prophetic at the core of progressive bluegrass artist and co-founder of Nickel Creek, Chris Thile’s work over the last four years. It comes through in the fallen angelic bittersweetness of his falsetto vocal, supported by inspired urgent speed as his fingers run up and down neck of his mandolin. Maybe it’s the sense of a hard-fought but joyful defiance over the direction the world-at-large seems to be heading. It calls to mind singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s classic album, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. Whatever it is, the sense of joy in the face of madness comes out of every note played in the music Thile has been making as of late.

Although the much-anticipated Nickel Creek reunion tour continues this year, Christ Thile will bring his unique solo show, highlighting his genre-bending performance with his mandolin, on June 7 at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla. In a one-man musical tour de force, Chris Thile entertains, entrances, provokes, spins stories through his mandolin, and calls down the magic for an evening that will leave the audience enriched and more aware of their place in their own community.

Thile’s two most recent releases: Nickel Creek’s 2023 Grammy-nominated album, Celebrants (their first in nine years), and Thile’s 2021 solo album, Laysongs serve to form a thoughtfully inspired musical meditation on the value of music and community in the post-Pandemic era.

The lyrical flow paired with the layers of intricate music creates a vision of a community of resilient souls coming together in a burned-out apocalyptic yearning to create a new path of love and unity through music.

In the end, after experiencing these two albums, it is clear what he and his musical family have accomplished. It is a portrayal of a path through troubled times, eschewing America’s flirtations with narrow-minded religious fundamentalism, disease, wanna-be dictators, and racist political partisanship.

The road ahead in the Nickel Creek universe is all about generosity, music, spirit, flesh, and community with the accepted diversity of our uniqueness and differences intact. It is existential love and creativity Laysongs and Celebrants call us to. And these records are stunning in their subtle seduction and the way they light up the dark room where the world is stuck these days. Thile is clear about the instincts that led him to this place.

A statement released by Nickel Creek at the release of Celebrants in 2023 says it from the inside:

This is a record about embracing the friction inherent in real human connection. We begin the record yearning for and pursuing harmonious connection. We end the record having realized that truly harmonious connection can only be achieved through the dissonance that we’ve spent our entire adult lives trying to avoid.

It is common knowledge that Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins met during their childhood here in Carlsbad, while playing in bluegrass nights at a local pizza tavern. It was a cross-generational family affair with their parents joining in.

The Nickel Creek story unfolds along with the growth of new grass, alt. folk, and Americana-roots music over three decades and into the 21st Century.

Legendary side projects found their way into the group with Watkins Family Hour and Thile’s progressive bluegrass supergroup the Punch Brothers. After a few years on NPR with his follow-up to Garrison Keillor’s beloved Prairie Home Companion, Live from Here, which was cancelled during the 2020 Pandemic, Thile found himself cut off from live performance, studios, and his community of musicians and audience. Isolation began to set in.

In a 2021 interview with the New York Times Thile mentions how during the year of the shutdown, he found himself wanting to listen as much as perform. He began to crave the community of people—not only musicians but also in-person contact with others—even those who held different beliefs and opinions. He said:

When we come together with people that we love, or with our fellow like-minded human beings, we also then immediately start demonizing non-like-minded human beings.

His solo album, Laysongs, which consists of Thile and his mandolin inside a defrocked church, grew out of a desire to explore the community and spiritual roots of his Evangelical Christian background. Laysongs generously and honestly reveal his struggles with faith, doubt, redemption, and renewal. It all comes down to community. There is also a strong spiritual, lyrical, and musical freedom to explore, to question, to wonder, and to leave the enigmatic mysteries he confronts open and unanswered. As though in the questions and the dynamics of the creative process is where the answers are found.

Chris Thile sings “Dionysus” from his latest album, Laysongs.

As Thile said to the New York Times on the album’s release it is intended to “to push back against that element of exclusion that comes with building community,” whether in church or in politics, and against how “we then isolate ourselves with those people whom we love.” So, with Laysongs, Thile, the modern pilgrim on his own progressive journey, lays out his worldview that refuses to settle for anything less than intense passion found in this music. As Thile told the New York Times, “I want the gestures to be clear. I want to give people clear, defined building blocks. And now you get to put them together.”

The centerpiece of this album, where every song counts, is the three-part “Salt in the Wound.” While Thile reports that he wrote the piece after reading the C.S. Lewis classic of demonology, The Screwtape Letters, he seems to have transferred much of the emotional undercurrent from the Book of Job, famous for its meditations on doubt, suffering, and the value of standing steadfast while suffering. Only with this song, as he recorded the album in this old, decommissioned church, he’s more at play with the devil as he sings:

We’ve helped better worlds than yours to self-destruct
You’ll all be singing what the godforsaken fuck
To no one from the bellies of your mobile phones
And we savor your damnation with our Lord below.

Lewis couldn’t have said it better in these modern times.

Thile considers the old church where he recorded Laysongs to be a participant in the sessions. There is a warm sonic ambience to this album. The meaning of it all, for Chris Thile and for those who listen closely, is summed up in his beautiful cover of Hazel Dickens gospel-tinged song, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me,” which becomes a love song for the church, the music he created and those who will hear this fine album. It is an apt song of resolve, renewal, and faith restored.

Sing those hymns we sang together
In that plain little church with the benches all worn
How dear to my heart how precious the moments
We stood shaking hands and singing a song.

The irony of the Nickel Creek Celebrants and Thile’s Laysongs is—as they question the faith tradition of their childhood—that these two albums affirm the deeply-rooted faith found in the community of music, imagination, and spirit that Thile and his lifelong friends have pioneered all their lives.

Chris Thile comes to San Diego on June 7, 7:30pm, for a concert at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla