Chris Thile (photo:Cassandra Jenkins)

Chris Thile, 31, a multi-instrumentalist and composer best known for his role as mandolinist and singer for the Grammy Award-winning progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek and currently with the Punch Brothers, has been awarded a “Genius” grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. As a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, he will receive an unrestricted award of $500,000 over the next five years.

The foundation recognizes individuals who “have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Says Robert Gallucci, the foundation’s president: “The MacArthur Fellowship is not only a recognition of their impressive past accomplishments but also, more importantly, an investment in their potential for the future. We believe in their creative instincts and hope the freedom the fellowship provides will enable them to pursue unfettered their insights and ideas for the benefit of the world.”

Here’s a link to a MacArthur Foundation video on Thile:

Thile, who delves in bluegrass as well as other musical genres — including folk, country, classical and jazz — was among 23 people in various fields who were awarded MacArthur Fellowships. Something of a child prodigy, and certainly a virtuoso, Thile began playing mandolin as a youngster. He won the national mandolin championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas at ripe old age of 12 and released his first solo album of mostly original compositions, Leading Off, the following year. In 1997, Thile, then 16, won both a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album and an IBMA Award for Album of the Year for True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe. He later won an IBMA Award for Mandolinist of the Year (2001) and a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album for This Side (with Nickel Creek).

In addition to his more than 15 years with Nickel Creek, which went on indefinite hiatus in 2007, Thile has released a number of solo albums and also has teamed up with such notable artists as Mike Marshall, Edgar Meyer (whom Thiele has cited as one of his biggest musical influences) and Yo-Yo Ma. He’s also appeared on albums by such artists as Diercks Bentley, The Dixie Chicks, Scottish songbird Julie Fowlis, Sarah Jarosz, Dolly Parton, and Kate Rusby. His latest musical collaboration, Punch Brothers, sprung out of the How to Grow a Band, which he formed in 2006 and which also is the title of an independent documentary film released last year that portrays Thile as he leaves the very popular Nickel Creek and launches an artistically ambitious new band.

Renamed the Punch Brothers in 2007, the band released its first album, Punch (Nonesuch Records) in February 2008. Among other original compositions, it featured a 40-minute suite (really an elegy) in four movements entitled The Blind Leading The Blind that the group had debuted the previous year at New York’s Carnegie Hall and which Thile has said was written in part as a way of coping with his divorce several years earlier. The Punch Brothers released their third and newest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, earlier this year.

In a statement that appears on the Punch Brothers’ website — where you also can sign up for a free three-track sampler from the band’s performance at The Fillmore in San Francisco earlier this year –Thile says: “Punch Brothers has gradually evolved from a band that existed to present the ideas of one guy into a band presenting the unified idea of five guys. I had a very clear vision for The Blind Leaving the Blind and I’m very proud how that turned out, but the reason to put yourself in this kind of situation is to have the opportunity to present a real sense of community to other people. When there are five dudes up there doing something as a unit that encourages people to participate, that’s where Punch Brothers is exhibiting a lot of growth. We can actually bring a sense of real musical camaraderie, creative camaraderie, to people who come to our shows and those who listen to the records.”

Although touring extensively with Punch Brothers, Thile still finds time for other musical collaborations. Last year, he recorded an album entitled The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo-Yo Ma, Meyer and noted fiddle player Stuart Duncan, while Nonesuch also released Sleep With One Eye Open, his duo album with guitarist Michael Daves.