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The Lay of Christopher of the Ten Fingers and the Mandolin of Dreams

"With genius, one can do anything. Without it, one had better let the stage alone." --Louisa May Alcott

It’s a lesson Chris Thile has never had to learn. His genius flows rippling through the strings of his mandolin, an instrument it seems Tolkien himself would have appreciated. Less mainstream than guitar or violin, its sound evokes the southern hills of a hundred years ago, an austere countryside that Tolkien would have recognized as part of the landscape of his imagination, peopled with seldom-seen Hobbits and fading Elves–to the accompaniment of these plinking strings.

"Anwyn, what on earth are you raving about? What’s a mandolin? Who the heck is Chris Thile? You’re supposed to be a Tolkien writer!"

Well, my benighted friends, before you read farther, click here. Your browser should take you to the Amazon.com page that will instantly reveal our interest in young Mr. Thile–a CD entitled Not All Who Wander Are Lost.

With his friends Sean (guitar) and Sara (violin) Watkins, Chris has a band called Nickel Creek that is currently hot on CMT–that’s Country Music Television, to any music snobs out there–and you can find one more example of songwriter Chris’s love of Tolkien on their self-titled album. But this band isn’t exactly Alan Jackson or Reba McEntire. Chris has recorded and written with the truly greats of acoustic music, resisted trite labels that slur both his age and his and Nickel Creek’s style, and gone up and down the scale of geekdom, as evidenced by tracks on his other albums named after Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, and Wrigley Field (GO CUBS!). And when it comes to Tolkien, it’s clear that Chris has taken to heart the Professor’s greatest lesson–sub-creation.

Like many of us (or at least like yours truly), Chris has family heritage at least partly to thank for his early trips to Middle-earth. "My parents used to read Lord of the Rings to me when I was little," he explains. "Mom would actually have voices for everybody and sing the songs. I was enthralled. He created a whole world… and of course Lord of the Rings is not only a major work of creativity but as entertaining as any book could possibly be." Right on. And Chris, who has been playing his instrument since he was five, found a quick kinship with the kind of creativity Tolkien espouses. "It helped me to realize the boundless nature of creativity, that you can do any amount of experimenting and detail work. Like a lot of people it affected me profoundly; in just the intensity of the detail; it makes anybody who reads it very interested in seeing what's possible in detailing their own work, whatever it may be." As we all know, it was that eye for details that turned Tolkien into Niggle, but Thile seems to have more than the normal boundless energy of his youth to help him along where Tolkien’s steps may have slowed into fussing and re-writing. At twenty-one or thereabouts, Thile talks almost as fast as he plays–almost–and it only takes one listen to "Riddles in the Dark" or "In the House of Tom Bombadil" to know that his musical thoughts must flow even faster. It certainly seems that flow has been encouraged by Tolkien’s words. "It's been terrifically inspirational to me in my writing. When you're writing an instrumental song, you're able to sort of paint a picture without actually having to say anything; you can be as vague or specific as you wish. Coming from the kind of musical background that I come from, I was hearing a song, like what I wrote, in the background of Tom Bombadil's house, in that whole chapter. I figured he might be singing his merry little tune there to something a little more energetic and even more off-kilter than a traditional folk-melody or something like that, because of his nature. So the tune was sort of spawned from that." And of course, the value Tolkien himself put on music played its part. Though it’s arguable that the songs in Middle-earth exist for the sake of the poetry, still, Tolkien made it clear that these poems were, many of them, sung. "I'm really into the musical element of it. It's very old-school in the way the music was used; music was a very exciting part of people's lives in Middle-earth. We take music for granted. It's all around us; it's just become wallpaper. You have the radio on, but do you actually know what you're listening to? The chord changes? Do you know that most things you're listening to on the radio suck?!??" I’ll presume he doesn’t class Nickel Creek in that category, but I certainly see his point. Would Thile ever consider setting some of Tolkien’s words to his music? "Absolutely. I feel like with my background being so varied in roots music in general and just the acoustic nature of what I do, I'd love to try my hand at putting some of his wonderful stories [to music]… I think the Irish/Celtic tradition of storytelling really caters with Tolkien's lyrics."

This is one listener who thinks Thile has mastered the art of projecting pictures with music, just as Tolkien did with words. I pushed "play" on "Riddles In the Dark" and started off hearing what I wanted to hear, what I already knew about the situation under the mountain at Gollum’s nassssty little pool, but by the end of the first hearing and on into the subsequent ones, I was hearing what Chris evidently imagined out of that scene. I never would have heard the tension wound to so tight a pitch and so fast a speed, but Thile has, and those fiery strings, both of Chris’s mandolin and Béla Fleck’s banjo speaking back to him, tell the whole story. He is clear about what vision he was trying to evoke: "Tension towards the end of the Riddle Game, when Bilbo is at his wits' end and asks ‘What have I got in my pockets?’ What tricks do I have up my sleeve, how the frick can I get out of this situation? And Gollum's like, not fair, not fair, and I love when Gollum answers two in one at the end. They're both at their wits' end at that point… so I think that the whole song is very intense, and it's technically very challenging to play. There's a part in the middle which would be most like the riddles, when Béla and I are improvising off each other, sort of a dark and deceptive dueling banjos of sorts, and I think that sounds most like the last couple of riddles where everything's sort of coming to a crux." And then his hyperdriven musical imagination goes on: "For me it's definitely the last couple riddles, and especially the part when Bilbo finds the Ring, which is one of the most important points in all of Tolkien's world, so I want another chance at writing something for that scene, but it was a fun composition. It seems to work, though I don't think it works on the magnitude of the One Ring being found. You might need one of those gargantuan orchestras, OR, maybe, a solo violin, maybe the opposite of what you'd expect." Though it’s clear he got what he wanted out of the piece, it’s also clear he never stops imagining what could be. "I find Tolkien to be an unbelievable role model, as far as the extent that you can obsess about creativity–I say obsess in a good way. I say if you're not obsessing about something, you might not be into it quite enough. We can all learn from the devotion and the life that he poured into his work, and that's what I strive to do." Indeed.

Like Tolkien himself, who was a modern throwback to epics like Beowulf and the Icelandic Sagas, Chris Thile and Nickel Creek have reached for an older tradition than the current trends in country music. And, ironically, this goal has gotten them labeled as "bluegrass relevant to this generation," or even "bluegrass for Generation X." Although whoever wrote that one was about ten years behind–they were calling my class the last of X, back when I was undergraduate. What is this generation even called? "Generation Y... which is just stupid," he laughs. "No, but as far as the label, we come from bluegrass, and it's debatable that we're more bluegrass than anything else, I don't know. I don't look at us as bluegrass. If you call yourself a bluegrass musician, you're consciously making decisions that keep you in the realm of that form. We're not doing that. Music and the best form of expression of any particular tune is all we really care about. Sean [Watkins] and I write most of the tunes for the group, and we want to be able to… it's kind of like the content of the song is like a diamond and whatever type of music you want to call it, is the setting. The setting means nothing. The stone is really what you want to display. You can't walk around with just a stone on your finger. You're just trying to not get in the way of the content you have."

The question had to be asked–what did he think of the movie? "Over all they did a pretty good job. You're going to wind up pissing off a lot of people when you make a movie of something so precious to so many people. I think Ian McKellen was perfect. I didn't have problems with Elijah Wood. I enjoyed it." Inevitably he winds around to thoughts on the music. "I wish that the soundtrack shouldn't have been so predominantly orchestral. It should have been a smaller ensemble, a chamber group, something to give it less of a flavor of Hollywood classical music and more of a period sound–lutes and viols. I think it should have sounded otherworldly and it didn't at all. That could have been something that could have added a lot." And, as with a lot of people that have been writing to TheOneRing.net in the weeks since the movie’s opening, the film made a Tolkien convert in Thile’s life. "One of the things I love about the movie is that I took my fiancé to see it, and she'd never read the books. I consulted my brother about it, who is an even more diehard Tolkien fan, and he thought it would be okay. She hates fantasy, isn't into dragons and elves–she saw the movie and was just transfixed. She's wanting to read the books, and wants to be an elf now." Welcome to our world, Future Mrs. Thile. J

All in all, it’s clear that young Mr. Thile has some perspectives much older than his age, and not strictly in the musical center of his brain. His fingers on the mandolin speak a language all their own, and he understands as well as did Tolkien himself the ultimate purpose behind sub-creation. "The idea that you can take people out of their box for a little while… Everybody has a world that they're trapped in. They only have their perspective on the world, and if you can for an hour or two transport them into another perspective–them combined with you–I think you do that person a great service. And that's what I think Tolkien did, possibly better than anyone else."

Well said, sir. Very well said.

For more information on Chris Thile or Nickel Creek, check out the official Nickel Creek web site at www.nickelcreek.com. Albums by Chris Thile, Nickel Creek, and guitarist Sean Watkins are available at Amazon.com, and are under the label of Sugar Hill Records–head over to www.sugarhillrecords.com for album and touring information. A great big thank you to Chris Thile for speaking with me–Mr. Thile, play on!

- Anwyn

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