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Punch Brothers Leader Chris Thile Wins MacArthur 'Genius Grant'

Mandolin player is among 23 people awarded $500,000 prizes

October 2, 2012 8:25 AM ET
chris thile punch brothers
Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers performs at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee.
Gary Miller/WireImage

Punch Brothers mandolin player Chris Thile was among 23 people awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" yesterday, The Associated Press reports. The news came as a surprise to Thile: recipients don't even know they've been nominated until they get a phone call telling them they've won, and nominators remains anonymous.

Thinking they were election-year robocalls, Thile at first ignored the foundation's attempts to reach him by phone from its Chicago headquarters. His tour manager searched for the phone number online and told Thile the calls seemed to be coming from the MacArthur Foundation.

"I think I must have turned white," Thile said. "I've never felt so internally warm. My heart was racing. All of a sudden, I felt very askew physically. I was trying to catch my breath. . . . I thought, 'Oh, my God, did I win a MacArthur?'"

The grants, paid over five years, give recipients the freedom to pursue a creative vision, and winners don't have to account for how they've spent the money. Thile, 31, who got his start with the progressive bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, put together the Punch Brothers in 2006. He said he's considering using his grant to fund a chamber music project for a bluegrass quintet.

This year's other winners included author Junot Diaz, whose 2010 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize; Washington Post journalist David Finkel; classical flutist Claire Chase; and anti-poverty advocate Maurice Lim Miller, whose Family Independence Initiative project promotes self-sufficiency among residents of low-income neighborhoods.

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