A Prairie Home Companion

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After forty years Garrison Keillor has retired as old-timey charismatic host of the Minnesota based radio program, “A Prairie Home Companion.” Like many vetted entertainment and news outlets, many mantels have been passed to the next generation, whose voices and opinions will one day take on the old-timey feel of their elders, but with the change which comes from one generation to the next. Keillor chose as his successor, Chris Thile, who is now on his second season of hosting. Recorded in the famed Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, “A Prairie Home Companion” is a blast from the past which makes coy commentary on the present with tongue-in-cheek humor and wisdom.

The Appeal of the Understated 

While Keillor had been plugging away for decades, “A Prairie Home Companion” did not really become popular and well known outside of the Midwest until the 21st century. The program is “a weekly two-hour radio variety show that debuted in 1974 to a live audience of 12 people and now draws more than 4 million listeners a week across 600 stations” (Anderson). Awareness of the gem was helped by a motion picture starring Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep was released in 2006, but it cannot hope to really resonate with the unique and strange charm of Keillor, and it drew as much negative attention as positive. Maintaining his individuality and authenticity with Midwestern stoic consistency for decades, like a persistent ice sheet he finally came to wear down the American public, who in the year of the film’s release, commented:

It is time for us to sit down, as a culture, and have an honest talk about Garrison Keillor. It's no use trying to ignore him anymore: He is upon us. Keillor's empire—a folksy, benevolent force—has flourished in holy obscurity for more than 30 years on public radio. He has come to represent a crucial schism in the national taste—the Great Continental Divide between sarcasm and earnestness, snark and purity, the corrupt and the wholesome. (Anderson)

While Keillor’s particular brand of observant humor is quite familiar to the gentry of the Midwest, its pace, perspective, and quaint kindness may be harder to pick up around other parts of the nation. As Sam Anderson observes, “The mere sound of Keillor's voice—a breathy baritone that seems precision-engineered to narrate a documentary about glaciers—is enough to set off warfare between the generations” (Anderson). After all, it is an important question how something as innocuous as a whimsical radio program with antiquated sound effects chosen just for their historical charm could insight such hostility?

Rex Reed of the New York Observer offered a scalding review of the film interpretation, and alleged that it was still better than listening the program. His perspective of New York is probably the furthest antithesis to Midwestern candor one can get, as he illustrates with the sharpest bites;

The jabbering, meandering and ossified movie that Robert Altman has made from Garrison Keillor’s lumbering, affected and pointless audio curiosity A Prairie Home Companion is not a movie at all. It’s like notes for a movie that was never completed, retrieved from a wastebasket and filmed all night in a broadcast studio before the parking meters ran out of quarters. The result, if you can imagine anything so deadly, is like watching radio. (Reed)

The question of why Garrison Keillor’s inoffensive, patient, and kind style of entertainment can insight such hostility is twofold. One, “A Prairie Home Companion” is unflappable in their complete ignoring of concepts like “future” and “progress”. If these concepts are involved in the program is it only to highlight and contrast the stark brilliance of the past free from such encumbrances. For the tech savvy, wheels-on-fire New York populace this antiquated attitude is akin to heresy. Second, Keillor is a mad individualist, who makes a living off of indulging in his peccadillos and quirks. However, at the same time he has the uncanny flexibility to which “Keillor has, through three decades of canny self-marketing, turned himself into a kind of Every-Midwesterner. When he started as a writer and radio host in the early 1970s, America's major regions had all been thoroughly mythologized” (Anderson). The Midwest’s charm had not been fully tapped into even by those who lived there, and Keillor took advantage of that for the benefit of the region’s comedy, and his career. 

While the real Midwest has its share of societal problems just like the rest of the country, “A Prairie Home Companion” was a step away from the blighted reality of the present, and a swing on a porch swing into the past. To do this mythologizing justice;

Keillor invented a fictional territory—a mythical Minnesota hamlet called Lake Wobegon, ‘the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve’—and dedicated his career to exploring it. (Wobegon is a little like Yoknapatawpha County, but Midwestern—i.e., with all the murder, rape, class warfare, and incest translated into gardening, ice fishing, and gentle boyish hijinks. (Anderson)

Keillor’s brilliance and success was due to his thorough understanding of his audience. Keillor “honored his native culture by gently mocking it, an approach that ingeniously echoed the region's ethic of self-deprecating pride. Once Keillor settled on this subject and tone, his career became an impressive and sustained display of the Protestant work ethic” (Anderson). It was this work-ethic which Midwesterners so graciously rested from during the two-hour relaxing “A Prairie Home Companion”, the pace of which lulled people into the comforting belief that their efforts of the day were not wasted and they deserved a good rest. Assuring listeners (and viewers in the live audience) that life will surely not change as fast as it may seem “its elements (skits, songs, humorous poems, catchphrases) cycle in and out of the program as predictably as the seasons” (Anderson). People know what to expect with the program, but invariably find themselves presently surprised each time within the repetition.

Each element of the repetitious cycles of programming have a structure within which Keillor reinforces the main theme of the show. Nowhere is this clearer than in “News From Lake Wobegon”; a pointedly unthrilling 20-minute monologue full of childhood tomato fights, drunk preachers, Norwegian bachelor farmers, Minnesota weather (God designed the month of March "to show people who don't drink what a hangover feels like"), and sentimental rhapsodies about the precious things in life. Keillor delivers the news in a kind of whispery trance. (Anderson)

Thus, one really has to be listening to follow the show. “A Prairie Home Companion” is not something which can be fully appreciated on the go, in the car, or while jogging. Only reclined in one’s favorite chair with one’s feet up and a warm drink to soothe a wandering mind can the spirit of the show be embraced. In fact it is much more likely that in that stance people are more into the groove of the show than the live studio audience at the beautifully gilded Fitzgerald theater. After all, the sound effects are meant to be a strange surprise, and those in the theater can see them coming. Keillor has been the very heart of “A Prairie Home Companion”, for “When he speaks, blood pressures drop across the country, wild horses accept the saddle, family dogs that have been hanging on at the end of chronic illnesses close their eyes and drift away” (Anderson). Repetition is his tool of lulling people into a trance of peace resonate of an idealized Midwestern past, and the news segment always closes with, “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average” (Anderson). He says it with such simple, heartfelt compulsion that it must be so, but his reign has now ended and it is time to seek a new guard of the radio sentimentalist. 

Changing of the Home Guard

Upon listening to the style and skill of Chris Thile (“Thee-lee”) it is immediately clear that Keillor is not looking for a stylistic replacement, or an emulation, but a true changing of the guard. Thus, the changeover represents a huge stylistic changeover as well, one that has been forced to move with the times, update its jokes, references, and tempos. When revealing the choice Keillor said, “Chris is my man…and I’m eager to stay home and read books. But of course, I'll do whatever needs to be done to assure an easy transition — sing, dance, do ‘Guy Noir,’ talk about my home town, whatever is required” (Falk). For those stoic Prairie Home fans who will not move on they have thousands of recorded shows to replay from the forty year oeuvre of Keillor’s career (Busdeker). 

Thile is a member of the bands Punch Brothers, and Nickle Creek, and brings his own special charm and skill to the show (Falk). After all, Keillor did not play any instruments, besides the kazoo. While the Midwest public is remarkably patient and forgiving, really just looking for a heartfelt effort, Thile is still feeling the pressure of his predecessor’s shoes. Thile is; a coiled spring of a guy with a huge grin, despite grappling with a big new job. ‘It's remarkably thrilling,’ he said. ‘I can only hope to convey how stimulating those two hours on air are.’ Thile credits the Prairie Home staff with having his back as the show goes on. That it sounds laid back is the result of hard work by people off stage. (Kerr)

Thile is a master mandolin player with down home charm which gives him the room to grow into the role of the leader of the radio fantasy. The show is changing its cycles of skits and routines, which could not really be done by Thile, and are taking on a new voice. This was Keillor’s choice, “I thought that the show should press the restart and not try to replicate what it has evolved into…but go back to the beginning and revive itself as a music show with comedy add-ons” (Baenen). This was the result of much conversation with the members of the show, the network, and even some of the fans-who are never far away from the family of players (Graham). Every aspect of “A Prairie Home Companion” is sentimental, and endings of anything are some of the most sentimental times. 


“A Prairie Home Companion” had set a new standard of quality for radio since the medium was overtaken by television in the 60s, and while the master of ceremonies, Garrison Keillor has retired to read books, the show remains a vivid reminder of the American Spirit. Casting the wayward glances of our ears onto the past, the voice of the conscious of the Midwest lingers as a hum through the cornfields after a brisk wind. 

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. “A Prairie Home Conundrum: The mysterious appeal of Garrison Keillor.” Slate, 16 Jun. 2006. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2006/06/a_prairie_home_conundrum.html

Baenen, Jeff. “Goodbye, Lake Wobegon: 'Prairie Home' is getting a new host.” Bigstory.ap.org, 12 Apr. 2016. Retrieved from: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/b68c4645599c48dd90a2f8a01bbab360/goodbye-lake-wobegon-prairie-home-getting-new-host

Busdeker, Jon. “Garrison Keillor, of 'A Prairie Home Companion,' to speak at Rollins College/” Wesh.com, 6 Jul. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.wesh.com/orlandomyway/on-the-town-orlando/garrison-keillor-of-a-prarie-home-companion-to-speak-at-rollins-college/40382080

Falk, Taylor. “Garrison Keillor reveals next host for ‘A Prairie Home Companion’.” Current.org, 29 Jun. 2015. Retrieved from: http://current.org/2015/06/garrison-keillor-reveals-next-host-for-a-prairie-home-companion/

Graham, David A. “A Prairie Home Replacement: Can Chris Thile—or anyone else—ever take Garrison Keillor's place?” The Atlantic, 21 Jul. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/07/garrison-keillor-prairie-home-companion-chris-thile/399077/

Kerr, Euan. “At Prairie Home, Chris Thile stands on the edge of something exciting.” MPR News, 5 Feb. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/02/05/chris-thile-a-prairie-home-companion-solo-host

Reed, Rex. “Altman’s Prairie: Woe Be Gone!” Observer, 12 Jun. 2006. Retrieved from: http://observer.com/2006/06/altmans-prairie-woe-be-gone/