During the 2007 Nickel Creek farewell tour, Chris Thile walked on stage at the Inssbrook Ampitheater in Glenn Allen, Va., cracking a joke about winning the award for most feminine fiddle tune name. Five years later, the 'master of mandolin' has won an award he can really boast about.
It all began with a phone call.
Unable to recognize the area code, Thile ignored the incessant ringing at first. But when he got a voicemail saying, "don't tell anyone about this call," he began to pay attention. Thile's tour manager searched for the number online. "It appears to be from something called the MacArthur Foundation," he said.
Thile instantly knew this was a call he didn't want to miss.
"I think I must have turned white," Thile told the Associated Press. "I've never felt so internally warm. My heart was racing. All of a sudden, I felt very askew physically. I was trying to catch my breath."
A representative from the foundation was calling to tell Thile he would receive one of its annual "genius grants"--a $500,000 award.
Thile is one of 23 people to receive the honor this year. The foundation selects each winner through a highly secretive process. The nominators must remain anonymous, and the winners have no idea they've been nominated for the award until they get the call.
The MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest private philanthropic organizations based in the U.S., is known for supporting creativity across a broad spectrum. But critics have noted that many previous grant recipients don't fit into the struggling artist category and have not used the money to spark any new innovation or burst of creativity. This year's genius grant recipients include journalists, historians, novelists, and scientists. The foundation intends for the grants, which are paid over five years, to give recipients freedom to pursue a creative vision--without having to report how they spend the money.
In addition to the flattery of being named a "genius," Thile now has a grand sum at his creative disposal-no strings attached. At the moment, he is still considering how to spend the money. Thile recognizes the responsibility that comes with the honor, especially as the youngest recipient of the grant at 31.
But the greatest expectations for the award may come from Thile's loyal fan base.
Philip Rohrer, a junior at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., recalled seeing Thile perform with Nickel Creek: "I had never before seen someone enjoy playing his instrument like Chris and still haven't."
As for the money, Rohrer said Thile should use the grant to jump-start an incubator for other musical geniuses. But he also would like to see the musician do more traveling and explore other cultures and musical avenues. The only problem is that Thile seems to have done everything already, Rohrer said.
Thile's musical track record is undoubtedly impressive. He picked up a mandolin for the first time at age 5, going on to win the national mandolin championship at age 12. Thile's family, who raised him in the church, joined with another family when he was only 8 to form Nickel Creek. Since then, Thile's faith journey has gone hand-in-hand with his extensive musical journey--which includes playing alongside famed cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, composing a mandolin concerta for orchestras nationwide, and even making an appearance on a Dixie Chicks album. But for Thile, the grant provides a new milestone as he joins the ranks of his hero, mentor, and fellow musician, Edgar Meyer, who received a genius grant in 2003.
"It's his effort that has brought him to this point," said Jennifer Kelley, a student at Georgia College and State University inMilledgeville, GA. Thile should do whatever he wants with a good portion of the grant money."
Like Rohrer, Kelley said she would like to see Thile invest some money into the future, training students to be creative and encouraging new musical ideas.
Stephen Langford, a senior at Wake Forest, said Thile should give half of the money to an inner city music education program. But the other half could fund a project for his band, either another album or a collaboration, Langford said.
KG Koch, a student at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, agreed that Thile should reinvest the money into his own music. "I'd encourage using the money to explore new sounds and be unique with the music, maybe like a solo project."
For now, Thile continues his tour with progressive bluegrass band, the Punch Brothers. New sounds are sure to come, as Thile continues to take an innovative approach to music--an approach that Rohrer believes puts Thile a cut above the rest. His talent and his ability to produce so much from what used to be considered a single-use Bluegrass instrument make him a perfect fit for the MacArthur Foundation grants, Rohrer said:"One word that can describe his music is genius."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.