Garrison Keillor deserved a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. It's too late for that, but Keillor's replacement received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2012. Keillor recognized what the MacArthur Foundation was unable to do while Keillor hosted "A Prairie Home Companion" (1974 - 2016). Indirect appreciation for Keillor's show is better than none at all. If this is a (fair & balanced) farewell to a national treasure and a welcome to a successor, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
What’s "A Prairie Home Companion" Without Garrison Keillor?
By Abe Streep
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
"Here they come,” said the security guard, mopping sweat from his brow. He was tall and bald but not imposing, and he worried that the searing heat would lead to too much drinking. It was 3 p.m. on June 11, and the gates to the Ravinia outdoor theater in Highland Park, Ill., had just opened. People streamed in carrying coolers and lawn chairs, checkered blankets and wineglasses, plasticware full of crackers, melons and deviled eggs. They politely competed for swatches of grass in the shade of oak trees mounted with thank you for not smoking signs.
They wore old Cubs shirts and sun hats of all colors. A stuffed bald eagle perched atop one of the coolers. Vendors sold bottles of wine for $40. The security guard’s concerns proved well founded; the Malbec went quickly, then the Moscato. Lawn space dwindled, and with it some of the crowd’s civility. An old man struggled under the weight of two folding chairs. His wife worried aloud that he’d have a heart attack. “Keep walking!” he snapped.
They had come to see Garrison Keillor one last time. The creator and host of “A Prairie Home Companion” had for four decades gently skewered their baby-boomer sensibilities with fake ads for rhubarb pie and stories about family life that descended into jokes about plagues of rats and apocalyptic climate change. “There’s something about this kind of humor people my age can appreciate,” said Tim Balster, a gray-haired magician I met in the crowd. “It’s like a quilt.” Balster had been listening to “Prairie Home” for 33 of his 52 years. He loved nothing more than to hear the aging writer breathing deeply, his nose right next to the mike. “It draws you in,” he said, “like a moth to the flame.”
Now that was ending. Only four shows remained before Keillor would depart, relinquishing hosting duties to a 35-year-old mandolin player from California named Chris Thile, who was appearing as a musical guest for this show. As we sat in the grass, Balster noted that Keillor left the show once before, when he married a Danish woman, only to return. It was true. But this hiatus occurred during the Reagan administration, when Keillor, now 74, was still a relatively young man. Nevertheless, Balster said, “I’m holding out hope.”
An hour or so before the gates opened, I watched Thile prepare for the show in a dressing room in the Ravinia’s backstage area, then head for the stage entrance, where he crossed paths unexpectedly with Keillor. Keillor is 6-foot-3, a looming and still presence; Thile is fence-post thin with a pronounced jawline and unruly dirty-blond hair. He projects a focused, constant energy, and today his boyishness was amplified by a retainer in his mouth, a corrective measure to address problems left over from a childhood without dental insurance. Thile was already dressed for the performance in a collared shirt; Keillor, who is known for rewriting scripts until the last possible minute, wore a T-shirt.
“How’s it going?” Thile asked.
“How would I know?” Keillor said, without making eye contact.
Thile retreated to his dressing room to warm up on his mandolin, a rare 1924 Gibson built by the renowned luthier Lloyd Loar. He played arpeggios, his long fingers hopping around the fretboard, and sang in a clear falsetto: “Da da da da.” Thile’s voice is a staccato tenor. A critic once memorably wrote that Keillor’s baritone sounded “precision-engineered to narrate a documentary about glaciers”; Thile would be more suited to announcing a pickup football game played by peregrine falcons. He put on a tie: “There’s that.” But he looked a little nervous
Internally, executives at American Public Media, the nonprofit that produces and distributes “A Prairie Home Companion,” liken Thile’s ascent to Jimmy Fallon’s taking Jay Leno’s seat. The comparison sells short the jarring nature of the shift. Leno didn’t conceive of “The Tonight Show” or write most of the jokes himself, as is the case with Keillor and “Prairie Home.” More peculiar still, Thile is not a writer-raconteur in the mode of Keillor, but a musician, and one who prefers technical, challenging terrain.
The transition brings with it more than one existential question — whether “A Prairie Home Companion” can possibly go on without Garrison Keillor’s voice, and whether there’s even a place for such a show in modern America. Thile’s motivations also seem curious. He spent this summer touring Australia and Japan and curating a sold-out series of concerts at Washington’s Kennedy Center. He has a choir. Why preach to Keillor’s?
After the Ravinia performance, in a greeting tent full of rhubarb pie, an old man approached Thile and asked about his plans. “A lot of things will stay the same,” Thile told him. “But a lot of things will change.” The man smiled politely.
In 1974, Garrison Keillor — then a freelance writer and morning-show host for Minnesota Public Radio — traveled to Nashville for The New Yorker to report on the original live-music variety show, the Grand Ole Opry. His assignment was to write about the Opry’s transition from the Ryman Auditorium to a slick new venue. “Ryman should’ve been torn down long ago,” the country star Roy Acuff told Keillor. Keillor disagreed. His article was an unapologetically nostalgic celebration of the old venue, hosts and performers. Rather than attend the grand opening of the new Opryland, he bought a portable radio at a pawnshop and listened from his hotel room.
Upon returning to St. Paul, Keillor hatched plans for his own live radio show, and he started “A Prairie Home Companion” just months later. For its earliest years, it was primarily a music-variety program featuring regional artists and interstitial spoken-word bits. Keillor wrote mock commercials for fake products like “expeditious” Powdermilk Biscuits, made by Norwegian bachelor farmers, and “Beebopareebop rhubarb pie,” which was billed as resuscitative. There were also dispatches from Lake Wobegon, a fictitious Minnesota town of Scandinavians where all the children were “above average.” These eventually evolved into a monologue that became the show’s famous centerpiece. “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” he’d start, before delving into self-deprecating narratives that might contain a life lesson on, say, the importance of losing at softball. The spoken-word elements of the show became the main draw by the mid-’80s, and they appealed to enough people that in 1985 Time magazine put Keillor on its cover.
Keillor’s creation has always been an easy mark for jokes; in the popular imagination, the show is a sort of comfort food for the overeducated. (“Be more funny!” Homer Simpson once yelled at a cartoon version of Keillor.) But those who see Keillor as the bard of the white picket fence neglect how dark his humor could be: In a 2011 Lake Wobegon monologue, Keillor rhapsodized about putting a dead aunt out back to freeze. (“She was not a great beauty, and death did nothing to improve her.”) And the show has been remarkably popular, commanding more than four million weekly listeners at its peak. Minnesota Public Radio sold the publisher of its “Prairie Home”-themed product catalog, Rivertown Trading Company, for $120 million in 1998.
It was on the strength of Keillor’s audience that Bill Kling, the former president of Minnesota Public Radio, started National Public Radio’s first big competitor, American Public Radio. The show helped public radio stretch away from its staple diet of hard news; Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig owe Keillor a debt. So do a lot of people in Nashville. Over the past four decades, there has been no greater megaphone for acoustic music than “A Prairie Home Companion.” A partial list of artists who played the show includes Emmylou Harris, Chet Atkins, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Keb’ Mo’, Wilco, Mark Knopfler and Iris Dement, not to mention lesser-known talents like Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz. “He was down there away from the Top 40,” Harris told me, “which is a necessary thing.”
But the show never changed much, and in the podcast era, “Prairie Home” has come to feel anachronistic rather than subversive. Keillor’s habit of mocking millennial culture hasn’t helped; the show’s terrestrial audience has declined by 500,000 in the past five years, to 3.1 million. Its average listener age is 59.
In November 2014, Keillor announced that Thile would guest-host a few coming performances, marking only the second time in decades that he would abdicate the microphone for even a single episode. It was a trial run, but Keillor already had his succession plan in place. “I came to this decision myself, without talking to another soul about it,” he wrote to me. “I could’ve held meetings, commissioned studies, appointed a task force, and six months later the task force would’ve concluded that the show could not go on. Well, I say it can and it should. And I decided it should return to its roots as a musical variety show and grow from there.”
Thile’s appointment seems like an attempt to split the difference between Keillor’s audience and a younger one. Within the world of acoustic music — that is to say, among the “Prairie Home” fan base — Thile is a titan. Keillor has called him “the great bluegrass performer of our time.” He’s also not bound to Nashville’s strictures. Bach is his musical hero, and he considers Kendrick Lamar and the Swedish band Väsen among the day’s finest artists. His enthusiasms have sometimes produced awkward results: While guest-hosting “Prairie Home” in February, he covered Lamar’s “Alright,” a song about racist police brutality, which earned him some criticism on social media from listeners who suggested that the song wasn’t his to perform. (“I would readily admit that my love of the song kind of blinded me,” he says. “I think it was a bad call.”) Still, Keillor cited his adventurous nature as a reason for him to assume the throne.
“He takes big chances,” Keillor wrote. “He can be a chameleon, he can swim in every event, and for all his brilliance, nobody sounds better singing old American songs than he. Nobody.”
Thile first appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion” in 1996, at age 15. He showed up to sound check in a Cubs jersey and, before performing, went shopping with his mother, Kathy, because he didn’t own a dress shirt.
Onstage, Keillor welcomed him by saying, “I’m sorry your being on the show today means you’re missing our fishing opener in Minnesota.” Then Thile played some assertive triplets over a farcical Keillor song about a fisherman taking the dynamite out of his tackle box. When it came time for Thile to lead a tune, he said, in a Southern accent befitting a bluegrass star from Kentucky, “I’m ’onna do a song that I wrote when I was ’bout 10.” The drawl was affected; he’d only just moved from Southern California.
Thile was born in Oceanside. His father, Scott, was a piano technician and bass player, and Kathy stayed home with Chris and his two brothers. When Thile was a toddler, Scott filed for bankruptcy, and the family moved inland to Idyllwild. Every Saturday they’d listen to “Prairie Home,” then watch a bluegrass band at a local pizza place. The Thiles soon asked the band’s mandolinist, John Moore, to teach Chris. Moore drilled into him the notion that precision mattered. “Play it clean,” he would say.
In second grade, Thile began suffering night terrors, and Kathy started home-schooling him. Around this time, the Thiles embraced fundamentalist Christianity. The house rules were firm, but, Thile says, “There was a very real sense of unconditional love.” Thile was a baseball nut and prayed for the Cubs to win. He also learned fiddle, guitar and banjo, and started touring with the band Nickel Creek, which he and his father formed with the siblings Sara and Sean Watkins. He quit playing baseball to focus on the mandolin and released his first solo record at 13. “He doesn’t like to waste time,” Sara Watkins says.
When Thile was 14, Scott got a job as a piano technician at Murray State University in Kentucky. Bluegrass was a more serious business there than it was in California, but Thile made a name for himself. He met Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at a small Kentucky festival, where Rawlings handed the teenager his rare 1930s archtop guitar. “Not many people can get along with it,” Welch says. Thile got along with it. Welch was shocked. “I wonder if he was driving age.”
In 2000, Nickel Creek released a self-titled debut album that, to the band’s great surprise, sold more than one million copies. Thile, who was then living in Nashville, went on to release a successful solo instrumental record and married a 19-year-old aspiring fashion designer named Jesse Meighan. Nickel Creek toured relentlessly, and Thile began to struggle with his faith. He found it difficult to accept that all the nonbelievers he met on the road would suffer eternal damnation. In France he ordered his first drink, a glass of Bordeaux, which he greatly enjoyed. What was left of the religion of his youth disintegrated when he and Meighan divorced.
Thile moved to New York and found that the city fit. “New York will make you feel small,” he says. “I think that’s good. At least, it’s good for me.” He formed a new band, Punch Brothers, dedicated to playing nonbluegrass music on traditional instruments, and composed a four-movement suite about losing his faith and marriage. It did not sell one million copies. Precision still mattered, but it took on different forms. He mastered tiki drinks, devoured Radiohead and studied YouTube videos of Roger Federer’s matches. Onstage he gyrated, grimaced and jabbed his head downward like a pecking bird. The antic motion could distract from the music itself, which was without equal. In 2012 he won a MacArthur “genius” grant; the following year he made a record of Bach partitas and sonatas. Béla Fleck, who has toured with Thile, told me the mandolinist frequently tries to educate the audience. Gillian Welch says that in his more esoteric and cerebral efforts, he’s trying to entertain himself — “and it takes a lot.” Yo-Yo Ma told me: “He has no impediments. In terms of speed, he’s so virtuosic that there’s no time lag between thought and action.”
Thile has appeared on “Prairie Home” 24 times, but one performance stands out. During a July 2011 show at the Tanglewood theater in Massachusetts, Thile played a solo version of a traditional tune known as “Rabbit in a Log.” After the first chorus, he improvised over the song’s melody using bluesy and chromatic patterns. Then, over the chorus, he ascended the fingerboard with gruff tremolos followed by some reckless-sounding syncopated chords. Just as it seemed he’d lose control, Thile ripped off a blistering, cross-picking descent that ended on an authoritative stomp. The performance was a homage to the past and a staking of turf, both an appreciative nod to the formative bluegrass mandolinist Bill Monroe and a smile at him in the rearview mirror.
After he finished, the crowd at Tanglewood roared as though it had witnessed a bull ride. “That’s Chris Thile all by himself,” Keillor said, joking that he’d played “three tunes simultaneously”: “Rabbit in a Log,” the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “the second movement of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto.” During the same performance Thile told a story about meeting Monroe as a young boy. Afterward, Keillor complimented his delivery — a rarity.
When the hosting offer came, Thile had recently married the actress Claire Coffee. The couple had relocated to Portland, OR, and were expecting their first child. He thought he’d like to spend less time on the road. He also acknowledged, “There’s not a way to more people for me than this.” Though charming and cheery, Thile is by nature deeply competitive. Audience size matters. He knows he’ll lose some of Keillor’s devotees. “My goal is to lose one million,” he told me, “and add two.”
The “Prairie Home” office is a green building in a residential neighborhood of St. Paul. Rhubarb grows outside, and staff members call the building the Fort. Thile arrived in July to prepare for the transition. He went first into a studio to record some promotional spots, as American Public Media was still trying to persuade member stations to continue carrying the show. A staff member interjected to tell him how Keillor used to do this part of the job. The monitor on a computer displayed a screen-saver image of a large male lion.
If Thile feels any pangs about the prospect of being viewed as Garrison Keillor’s successor, rather than a musician of historic significance, he doesn’t let on. That may be because the titles aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; it may be because he plans to stray as far from Keillor’s mold as he has from Bill Monroe’s; it may be because he worships Keillor. He is evangelical about the power of live performance and believes that Keillor’s two-hour variety-show format is a platonic ideal. He compared it to the string quartet, which Franz Joseph Haydn is generally credited with perfecting. “Garrison’s Haydn,” he told me. Still, Thile concedes that “the world has changed a lot in the 40 years the show has been on the air.”
The group retired to the kitchen for a planning meeting. Thile sat at the head of the table. The show’s creative producer, Dan Rowles, its technical producer, Sam Hudson, and a handful of other staff members were present. They discussed which acts would perform during the fall season. On opening night they’ll feature Jack White, of the White Stripes, and Lake Street Dive, the Brooklyn-based soul-rock band. “Lake Street is a thesis statement,” Thile said. “There’s an aspect to them that’s throwback, but they’re also searingly modern.” Esperanza Spalding, the bassist and singer, will soon follow.
Thile’s plan, as suggested by his musical-guest choices, is to invert the formula of “Prairie Home.” Music will take the lead; guest comics like John Hodgman will provide side banter; and in place of the Lake Wobegon monologue, Thile will write a topical song each week. Thile once compared playing on “Prairie Home” to shooting free throws, because the audience was so hungry for music following Keillor’s skits. His challenge is to curate a musical show that’s as attractive for the “Prairie Home” faithful as it is for a yet-unrealized younger crowd. As of this writing, the millennial market for two-hour acoustic variety shows remains an untapped resource.
A skeptic might argue that “A Prairie Home Companion” has run its course. The diverse and diffuse audience Thile is targeting shares less and less in common with the small-town world that Keillor both mocked and humanized. Thile knows as much. He told me he sees regionalism — Keillor’s most mined comic vein — as “all but gone.” He doesn’t plan to move to St. Paul.
Instead, Thile sees the great possibility of “Prairie Home” as presenting a vital and evolving American songbook. He doesn’t share Keillor’s musical nostalgia. “Tradition matters,” he says. “To me it’s not a limiting force; it’s a springboard.” As a composer and songwriter, he prefers work that pushes ever forward, and he envisions a show in which great performers interact spontaneously, creating a thrilling blend. “Damned if I’m not going to ask Kendrick Lamar to be on the show if I get an in there,” he told me. “God, what if you were in the same town as the Berlin Phil, and could get them on too? Are we going to not do that? Of course we’re going to do that!”
But if Lamar, the Berlin Philharmonic and Thile perform “King Kunta,” does the crowd roar, or do hordes of Keillor fans decorate a stage with deviled eggs? A show peeking inside the mind of a virtuoso might be catnip for record-store cashiers, and it will certainly be entertaining live — Thile is probably incapable of putting on a boring live show — but adding two million listeners while dropping only one is another matter. When I asked Gillian Welch what she and her peers thought of Thile’s ascension, she confessed to some anxiety. “I have total faith in his artistry,” she said. She also told me, “I can’t tell if the audience is going to be able to take the leap.”
Toward the end of the meeting at the Fort, in St. Paul, Thile suggested a new idea. He wanted to perform a live request every week with his new house band. The rules: A minimum of two of the players should have heard the song, but none could have previously played it.
Rowles liked it. Hudson looked wary. Someone else said, “It could fall flat.”
Thile pointed out that its flopping could be entertaining as well: “It’s Evel Knievel.”
“When you’re live,” Rowles said, “people perceive you in great danger. When you take a risk like that, the reward is really high.”
Thile was firm. “I know there’s a way to make it work,” he said. “I know there’s a way to make it work.”
The others looked hesitant, save for Rowles, who was visibly animated by the idea. “The beauty of it,” he said, “is that it could fail.” Ω
[Abe Streep is a contributing editor at Outside magazine. Streep has written The Legends of Last Place: A Season With America’s Worst Professional Baseball Team (2013). He received a BA (English) from Middlebury College.
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