Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What’s ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ Without Garrison Keillor?

"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. (...)

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.

by Abe Streep, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times