secret_history (2006-24)

Intimations of Magnificence

Garrison Keillor’s first impressions of our hometown

by Jack Neely

The movie’s popularity among some of the most talented folks in Hollywood is, for me, an affirmation of what I once believed was a weird and solitary pleasure. A quarter century ago, WUOT played A Prairie Home Companion in recordings, very late at night, and when I tried to describe it the next day, it just seemed bizarre, and I wondered if I’d just imagined the whole thing.

Now I’m sometimes surprised when I meet someone who’s never heard it. You may just have to hear it to get it, and you may have to hear it more than once before you realize it’s an arch and subversive version of the Grand Ole Opry : The music’s real, the ads aren’t, and the skits are wickedly, and often pointedly funny. As host and storyteller, Keillor himself is two-quarters Mark Twain, one-quarter Anton Chekhov, one-quarter Che Guevara, somehow artfully packaged as a Captain Kangaroo for adults. I believe he’s one of the few voices of our era who will still be quoted when we’re all dead.

The show is typically broadcast from St. Paul, Minn., but several Saturdays a year it travels to other cities around the nation. It’s been to Nashville more than once, to the Ryman, where Keillor has admitted he got the inspiration. Seven years ago this month, he came to Knoxville.

Weeks earlier I’d written the show’s producer, offering to help, but really wanting to get an inside look. I heard nothing back. I couldn’t afford a ticket to the show at the Civic Auditorium, and they went fast.

But on Market Square that Friday I ran into the show’s famous truckdriver, Russ Ringsak, and we spent a couple of hours on a sunny day getting the truck from a storage area on Middlebrook Pike to the Civic Auditorium.

Ringsak probably sensed that I was trying to leverage my way to an interview with Garrison Keillor, and I probably sensed it wasn’t going to work. At length an assistant told me Keillor—“GK,” as they call him—typically gave only one newspaper interview, and he’d already given it to the News Sentinel . As a consolation they told me I was welcome to hang around the auditorium that Friday afternoon, as various cast members were arriving for the Saturday show, maybe make a story of what I saw.

Keillor went through a practice with pianist Rich Dworsky and the band. I was fascinated to watch. I’d been warned GK was a busy man and didn’t often talk to reporters. I hung around to watch, staying on the periphery, careful not to actually introduce myself.

After turning me down, the producer told me GK occasionally made exceptions for public-broadcasting people. He agreed to talk to Colvin Idol, who then worked for public-television station WETP.

“Idol?” Keillor said as he met Colvin, looking concerned. “Like those things we’re commanded to avoid?” Then he sat in the middle of the seats at the Civic Auditorium and gave Colvin a good interview. I eavesdropped, but couldn’t hear all of it. I did hear what sounded like some startling remarks about Knoxville, and for the last seven years, I’ve been wondering if I heard him right.

Over the years I’d casually asked some folks I know in public TV if they had a copy of the Garrison Keillor interview. Colvin doesn’t work there anymore. I had the impression it might be hard to find. One employee last year hinted darkly that he wasn’t sure they still had it.

Thanks to WETP’s Robert Bratton, who found a videotape of the interview, I got to hear it for the first time just last week.

Keillor had been to Upper East Tennessee, early in his career, when he’d interviewed members of the Carter Family, but he knew Knoxville only from what he’d seen at his room at the Hilton. Colvin didn’t ask him what he thought of Knoxville, but by way of talking about traveling, Keillor just blurted, “Knoxville is a city that for whatever reason, I can’t explain it to you, I have never sat foot in until I came in today,” he said.

“And I looked out the window of the hotel room and it’s just the most beautiful city, it’s a city that looks like cities I’ve seen in picture books when I was a child, with the hills and the river running through it and the steeples—it could be a German city on the Rhine, it could be a city in Provence. It’s a magnificent city.”

That’s an adjective I had never heard in connection to my hometown. He continued, as if it was obvious.

“I thought it would be, because my friend Chet Atkins came through here, started his radio career here—he’s always spoken highly of Knoxville.”

It is, I think, the highest praise ever bestowed upon Knoxville by any visiting celebrity. Of course, it was just a limited first impression. Then again, so are most of the insults the city has fielded over the last 80 years.

It should have been a relief to hear, one year after another humorist, in a national bestseller, offered a different first impression: Bill Bryson referred to suburban Knoxville as a “ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.”

You might suspect Keillor wouldn’t have thought of picture books and Provence if he’d looked more closely—or if he’d visited at sometime other than June, when the thick foliage hides a multitude of sins. And you might remember that it came from the guy who’s famous for saying, “Sometimes you have to look reality in the eye, and deny it.”

And it could have been that he was having second thoughts, by the time I saw him in the brewpub a couple of hours later, when, just because I happened to be there having a beer with the truckdriver, Keillor bought supper for me and a few members of the crew; or the next day, when he let this ticketless reporter watch the show from the wings. If so, he was too polite to mention it.