Mark O'ConnorI first met Chris Thile when he was 12 years old. I remember him being a really nice kid who seemed very talented on the mandolin. He and his dad were hanging out at the Gibson booth at the NAMM convention in L.A.

I saw him next in Nashville, around the time that I was leaving there to live in California. This was 1997, and I believe he was about 16 years old. He was playing at the Station Inn with a singer and some other high-profile acoustic players. I thought that, while Nashville loses one acoustic player in myself, at the same time it gains Chris Thile; a pretty fair trade. The trade actually was a little more ironic, in that I ended up moving to a section of North San Diego County just a few miles from where Chris was born and raised — and he’d just left the area the year before I got there.

We met up again when he came over to my place in San Diego while visiting his band mates. We spent the better part of the day hanging out, doing relaxing things and talking a lot. At that time, I began thinking about a way to accomplish my Thirty-Year Retrospective recording project, and I invited Chris to join me in the recording.

The very next year, though, Chris’ group Nickel Creek turned in their debut, self-titled record with Alison Krauss as producer that was a winner. Just a super album, and the sales and fame began to climb rapidly. Within a year, they were at a gold album status with more to come.

For me, though, it became a little frustrating because my album project was nearly impossible to schedule with Chris and his career on rapid-fire acceleration. If it hadn’t been for Chris’ desire to record my retrospective with me (which consisted of a lot of music that in fact influenced Chris in his formative years), the project may not have happened.

The recording took place in Nashville after three days of rehearsals, with additional pre-rehearsal, solo study time. The recording took place in front of a live audience in three concerts over three days. The result was 2 1/2 hours of music that was some of the finest acoustic and bluegrass-styled music I have ever been able to do. Chris Thile was integral in the project. Without him, the double CD would never have transpired.

Few people are irreplaceable, and certainly not for great lengths of time if so. At that time, there was not another player that could have made my Thirty-Year Retrospective possible. Thanks, Chris.

Mark O’Connor

Mark O’Connor teams up with Chris Thile and his new group, Punch Brothers, on July 2. Add O’Connor’s own “Hot Swing,” with vocals by international jazz sensation Sophie Milman, and you’ve got a show you won’t want to miss. Want tickets? Get ’em here.