As one of the founding members of the...
Chris Thile and the Genius Grant
posted by Jason Verlinde
In case you haven’t heard, yesterday it was announced that Chris Thile – mandolin virtuoso, composer and songwriter – is the latest recipient of a $500,000 “Genius Grant,” the shorthand for a being named a MacArthur Fellow. I can’t dispute his award one bit; I think Thile is one of the most brilliant minds in music today and we’re huge fans around here (here’s our cover story from issue 10 featuring Thile and David Grisman interviewing each other). I can’t wait to see Thile unveils over the next ten or twenty years. That said, it got me thinking about the awards in general and what other music geniuses (genii?) out there are deserving of future nods.
According to the Foundation’s site, MacArthur Fellows are chosen based on three criteria: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” That explains, I suppose, why younger mavericks like Thile get MacArthur’s but someone like Dylan – who in my book is also quite a musical genius – probably won’t get the prize anytime soon (not that it matters too much, he has a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a house in Malibu that is presumably worth more than $500,000).
Looking at the MacArthur’s past winners, what also stands out is that Thile is only the second fretted instrument player ever to get an award in its 30 year history (the first was 2007’s award to blues guitarist Corey Harris). Sure, there are a bevy of classical and jazz artists who have won grants, as well as Ali Akbar Khan (2007) and Edgar Meyer (2002), but for fretted instruments (guitars, banjos, mandolins and the like), it’s literally just Harris and Thile.
All of this begs the question: What other living, in-their-prime guitarists (or mandolinists or banjo players) are truly deserving of an award such as this? Who will not only take their instruments to new heights through their virtuosity but also somehow turn the masses onto their music? Who needs a half million dollar kickstart to up their game?
Should Bill Frisell, the stellar guitarist who has pushed the boundaries of jazz for decades, get the award? Should it go to someone like the off-kilter soundtrack and pop musician Jon Brion? Or maybe someone on the cusp of breakthrough like Blake Mills, the Bob Brozman-trained guitarist who can both write powerful tunes and play circles around most mere mortals. Does someone like Jake Shimabukuro, who can get a gazillion YouTube views with his uke interpretations of pop classics, deserve an award? Or does someone like Trey Anastastio, who can fill stadiums with Phish or help compose a Broadway musical (Hands on a Hardbody)?
Who else has that magic mix of untapped promise, rabid experimentalism and potential mainstream recognition? List your nominees in the comments below.
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