Does Garrison Keillor ever slip out of his radio persona? A phone conversation from Eugene, Ore., a few hours before a show, offers no clues. With his deep baritone and carefully chosen words between measured pauses, he's exactly the same guy who has offered the latest news from Lake Wobegon on nationwide public radio more Saturdays than not since the Ford administration.
Today he admits he's distracted by his 12-year-old daughter in the swimming pool. "She's on tour with us, sitting off in the wings," he says. "She has taken an interest in the whole thing, and is very attuned to changes in the show. When I make a mistake, she picks it up right away, and tells me about it later. She's intensely focusued on the whole spectacle."
She'll have to go home for school, though, before Keillor's upcoming Knoxville show at the Civic Auditorium. It's next Wednesday, the final week of his month-long Summer Love Tour. Though it's gotten some national promotion, it won't be a live radio show, like the program of A Prairie Home Companion he did with his full crew in the same venue in June 1999. "This is a sort of condensed version of the show," he says, "though it's a long show, two or three hours. It includes the parts of the show I love, a lot of duet singing, about fiddle pieces which people love, about singing, which I love. Plus some sort of vulgar, low comedy, with Fred Newman and sound effects. A certain amount of eruptions, helicopters, dolphins, caribou."
Performing with him will be Virginia folk duo Robin and Linda Williams, who have been semi-regulars with the show for a couple of decades, veteran sound-effects man Fred Newman, and young singer and fiddler Sara Watkins, well known for her association with the maverick string trio Nickel Creek. "Sarah Watkins' songs are really remarkable," Keillor says. "A beautiful voice, at home in the medium range, but every so often she soars up into the soprano range like early Emmylou."
Because PHC's two-person acting company won't be along, Watkins will be performing double duty as a radio actor, in Guy Noir and other skits. "We let her make some bodily sounds that I don't think she ever got to do when she sang with Nickel Creek," says Keillor.
When he thinks of Knoxville, he says, he thinks first of Chet Atkins, who performed on Keillor's show many times before his death in 2001. "Chet got a big start in Knoxville, on WNOX. I think he started out there, his first job coming out of his little town in East Tennessee." Atkins, originally from Luttrell, was based in Knoxville for about half of the 1940s, when he was earning his early renown as a guitarist.
"Knoxville to me kind of reminds me of Chet. He was an economic conservative, and a social liberal. A real East Tennessee Republican. He was a great man. A terrific performer who never had a bad night. Beyond that, he had a style about him. His real gift was for friendship. He had a sociability about him that fascinated me when I first knew him, and all the time I knew him."
"There were aspects of Chet I wanted to emulate and still do. But he persuaded me not to pick up guitar. He said the world does not need another mediocre guitarist."
Keillor's Minnesota-soaked show has Tennessee roots. "It was just the most ordinary thing. I'd been in radio for 10 years. I was kinda bored with it. I went to write this story about a radio show I had listened to off and on since I was a kid." It was his 1974 story for The New Yorker about the Grand Ole Opry, another show sponsored by a flour company with a catchy jingle. It gave Keillor some ideas.
Live radio had been dead for 20 years, cable TV was catching on, and even TV variety shows seemed to be on their way out. No consultant would have recommended any project like A Prairie Home Companion.
"Radio was off in the shadows," Keillor says. "Nobody paid attention to it, and that allowed for innovation and experimentation. You did not have anxious expectations leaning on you, trying to manage what you were doing. So we got into a kind of storytelling comedy, not about politics, not about pop culture, about the common goodness of life. About families and children and livestock and church and baseball, some of the common experiences of life, but not in a soupy, saccharine way.... It's an amiable show which conceals surprises. Developed without focus groups, screenings, consultants, became this odd variety show with comedic elements."
Something worked. The era that saw an expolsion of the Internet, social media, Netflix and YouTube also saw the growth of this old-fashioned radio show. Current estimates of PHC's weekly audience are around 4 million. But what is it about Internet-era America that seems to want A Prairie Home Companion?
"It's a very interesting question," Keillor admits, "and I should sit down and write about that I suppose, but I'm more interested in doing the show than thinking about it."
The musical part of the show can seem almost random. PHC is known for bluegrass, but recent repeat performers have included young offbeat Broadway-style singer/pianist Nellie McKay and iconic rock band Wilco.
"No, there's no rationale, not really," Keillor says. "It's personal taste. I like people who put it out there emotionally. I like that more and more as I go on. I'm much less interested in virtuosity. Fast flatpick guitar, fast bagpipes don't interest me at all. I'm sorry, but they just don't. I love singers. I think I love women singers more. That is just a visceral feeling when a performer connects with an audience on the radio." As an example, he mentions a recent guest. "Brandi Carlile just knocked me flat. Just absolutely slayed me."
"We don't smoothe things out in post-production. There are no computer programs to correct it for the general public. It's a live show!"
Besides its popularity, perhaps the unlikeliest result of A Prairie Home Companion was its interpretation, four years ago, as a major motion picture by risk-taking director Robert Altman, with a crazy all-star cast that included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, and Lindsey Lohan—along with Keillor and his regular cast. Shot at the historic Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., it turned out to be Altman's final film.
"I loved the experience," says Keillor. "It was like a visit to another world, leaving anything I knew and stepping into another reality. It wasn't really A Prairie Home Companion up there on the screen. It was a big tour into a different dimension."
With his previous shows, some Knoxville fans have been frustrated about the choice of venue: the Civic Auditorium is comfortable, but is simple in style and lacks the deep history of the Bijou or the Tennessee theaters, which would seem to offer fodder for Keillor, who often regales national audiences with details of a local theater's history. Keillor says he doesn't make venue choices, but says it often comes down to size. Most of his road audiences number more than 2,000—though the show's home theater, the Fitzgerald, is much smaller than the Tennessee.
Keillor's mental skills can still astonish most mortals. While hosting each show, he engages in witty dialogue with musicians and actors, occasionally acts or sings a duet, and then, after about an hour and a half of that, stands alone with the microphone and tells an often complex and always funny story about recurring and non-recurring characters of fictional Lake Wobegon. On live radio for 4 million listeners, and—what always surprises first-time viewers—mostly without notes. His presentation has convinced some fans that he was born with some unprecedented mental talents.
"No, it's not a gift" he says. "It's something you learn over a long period of time by doing it. You have to kind of kick yourself in the pants, and kick yourself in the right directions. You learn this by sitting in an audience and watching other people do it. You see what you like and what you want to avoid. The thing I most want to avoid is standing up in front of an audience and reading off a piece of paper."
Faces in the audiences guide him, he says, and let him know what's working. "Just me and a microphone, talked for a little over two hours without repeating myself, and people clapped at the end as if they meant it.
"It would be unbearable to stand up in front of people who don't want you there. I find that painful in the extreme."
That's happened only a couple of times, he says, when he agreed to perform at some large corporate functions. He doesn't do that sort of thing any more.
The Knoxville show will come one year, almost to the day, after Keillor suffered a stroke that canceled some shows.
"A blood clot goes sailing up into your brain, and there's no telling where it's going to land," he says, as if narrating another of his softly absurdist stories. "Mine lodged in what neurologists call a silent part of the brain, a part where not much is going on. Of course, some have more of that than others. I knew something was happening, drove myself to the hospital. It didn't have much effect. It gave me a little bit of an impediment—but I don't want to say impediment. I notice my speech is different. Nobody else notices. My wife doesn't notice. But I feel differently when I talk. But evidently it makes sense.
"You see people much younger than yourself, up and down the hall, in wheelchairs and having to relearn how to speak. You just count your blessings." He compares it to other traumas. "Gunshots were fired, hostages were taken, but nothing hit you. You roll your car four or five times and miraculously walk away from it."
A writer of deft political columns for websites, Keillor is an unapologetic liberal Democrat, and he would not regard it a contradiction that he's also the only public-radio broadcaster who ever leads audiences in singing Christian hymns. His fans may assume its for the cultural value—much American folk music, after all, is religious in origin—or, as some have suggested, for its irony, in keeping with Powdermilk Biscuits and the rest of the show's wink-and-nudge character. Keillor talks a lot about Lutheranism, but he's not a Lutheran himself. He is, though, a regular churchgoer.
"I'm just a rotgut sinner like all the rest of us," he says. "I go to St. Johns Episcopal Church in St. Paul when I'm not on the road.... I was raised in the Sanctified Brethren, which is as different from the Episcopal Church as it is possible to be.
"I find myself drawn more and more to a very formal liturgical church," he says. He recalls an experience in Baltimore that sounds decisive. "I found this old stone church, Episcopal, and I walked in this old stone edifice. The procession had just begun, four priests, acolytes, but kind of a sparse congregation—the opposite of what I grew up with. In this big old gothic gloom, you had the privacy of your own thoughts. It didn't matter that there were only 40 or 50 people there. We were there, I was there, God was there, carrying out the prayers and liturgy of the church.
"I don't want to go to church and find an entertainer up there. Though I understand the urge to perform. A congregation is not to be tampered with, poked and prodded."
Keillor's now 68, an age when most folks are cutting back a little. Keillor claims he has tried to retire, but failed. "I tried to shut it down. And did shut it down, for a couple of years" in the late '80s. His summer tours give his crew a break, but he seems unable to take one himself.
In conversation, he pretends to assume there are other shows like it. "I'm sure there are other, but I haven't been around to scout the competition," he says. "I guess I'd be afraid of what I might find out."
The fact is, Garrison Keillor is the only one in the world, maybe in the history of the world, who does what he does. He dismisses the suggestion, though, suggesting that what he does is not all that different from what Bill Cosby does— stand up and tell funny stories for a couple of hours.
Yes, but Bill Cosby's not also hosting a complex variety show with actors and musicians, typically in two or three different styles, sometimes acting himself, sometimes singing duets, and writing best-selling novels on the side.
Keillor pauses just a moment before he responds. "You do what you have to do," he says.