Thanks for Listening began as a simple idea: To document, in a studio setting, the tunes that singer, songwriter, and mandolinist Chris Thile had composed for the new “Song of the Week” segment of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion during his inaugural season as host. Thile had set himself a formidable musical challenge and, as befits this enthusiastically risk-embracing artist, he was more than up to the task. In addition to traveling, planning, rehearsing, and performing on the fifteen episodes of APHC’s 2016–17 season, Thile managed each week to create a funny, topical, and at times quite poignant new song he would play with a rotating cast of APHC band-mates and guest stars. These were not throwaway radio bits, but smart, fully realized compositions. They served the needs of the show but were just as timely and engaging on their own.
In July 2017, Thile went into New York City’s Reservoir Studios with producer and longtime friend Thomas Bartlett and that’s when these songs gained an even deeper resonance. As they listened through the APHC versions, Thile and Bartlett realized that, taken together, these songs could form an album-length narrative. Part of the story Thile found was autobiographical. Thanks for Listening represents perhaps the most direct and personal material Thile has ever recorded. It reflects the changes to his own peripatetic life as he assumes a new role as APHC host and, behind the scenes, as a new dad—while continuing to play with his band Punch Brothers and collaborate with such artists as Brad Mehldau, Edgar Meyer, and Yo-Yo Ma. We learn what delights him (like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series,) and what alarms him (the polarized state of our nation post-election). But Thile also tells a broader tale—satirically, wistfully, frankly— about the divisions and disconnects plaguing America today, whether it’s on social media or at the Thanksgiving table. The overarching theme, Thile realized, was about the art of listening—the joys of it, the current difficulties of it, and the necessity of hearing what others have to say, not just the overwhelming desire to be heard.