A Prairie Home Companion: From Panic Attack to Paradigm Shift

garrison-keillorI awoke when it was still dark outside, a good hour before my alarm was set to go off. At a slow and deliberate pace, with my eyes shut tight and my arms stretched out in front of me waving around like a zombie as if I actually needed to feel my way through the six feet of empty space between the edge of my bed and the door to the bathroom, I tried hard to think of nothing. It is usually at this precise moment, as my body is responding to its natural calling, that my brain either chooses to stay in it’s restful state or begins to come alive, like a chick breaking through an eggshell. It is mighty rare that I’ll manage to climb back into the bed, pull the covers up past my chin, and slip back to my safe place.

On most days I lose the battle, as my thoughts and anxieties will surface from the deep and pull me from sleep. And it was indeed such a morning this past week, that I stood naked doing what I was doing when, in a flash, my eyes opened wide, a cold breeze caused my body to shudder, goosebumps popped up, and a buried memory of Garrison Keillor standing on the edge of the stage at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater singing an Elvis Presley medley came barreling toward me. Forsaking the flush, I jumped onto my bed, reached for the MacBook, and with credit card numbers dancing in my head I searched for tickets to the three upcoming A Prairie Home Companion shows at New York City’s Town Hall. Sold out. A cold sweat and anxiety ensued.

Most readers of this column are likely well aware of Keillor’s live radio variety show, which features musical guests of almost every genre (but in particular, traditional folk, blues, jazz, and gospel), devastating comedy skits, old fashioned radio drama themes, commercials from fictitious products, and the storytelling skills of Keillor, its host.

A Prairie Home Companion‘s first show took place in 1974 with an audience of 12 people, and after a couple of shifts in venues and a two-year hiatus in the late 1980s, over four million people tune in every Saturday evening on over 500 public radio stations in the United States. The show is also broadcast in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Europe, on the Armed Forces Radio Network, Sirius Satellite Radio, and an online stream.

While I’m sure there is a humongous group of fans who plan their Saturday nights around the broadcast and have never missed a single show, my own listening patterns are probably the norm for many. If I’m in the car and I know it’s on, I’ll find a station on the left side of the dial so I that can listen. Occasionally, but not too often, I’ll tune in while at home. I’ve also been in the audience on several occasions in St. Paul and New York, and screened Robert Altman’s film of the same name about 50 times.

There are also about ten or so albums that my two kids grew up listening to. Any car trip lasting an hour or more would always be an opportunity to hear some “News from Lake Wobegone” or an episode of “Guy Noir, Private Detective.” We liked to listen to the the Hopeful Gospel Quartet, the Duets and anniversary albums, and the three-disc Comedy Theater set that also includes many of the great commercials. I like to think that we were an A Prairie Home Companion family, despite periods of diversion with Radio Disney and Weird Al.

When Keillor announced his retirement this past June, and named Nickel Creek co-founder and Punch Brothers founder Chris Thile as host, I had a hard time imagining how the program could continue with a musician at the helm instead of a storyteller and humorist of Keillor’s magnitude, style, and wit. It was only this week that I realized that, as we head into the 2016-2017 season, things on this show are going to change. That realization gave me an overwhelming feeling of the loss of a trusty old friend, who’s there when you need them. It made me scramble to grab tickets to the New York City road shows before it all goes away … and it triggered a panic attack of sorts.

In a recent interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Keillor noted he’ll be around all of this season. He will do some co-hosting with Thile, and he’ll continue as executive producer next season. He also spoke a bit about Thile, who made his first appearance on the show 19 years ago at the age of 15.

“He’s a brilliant musician. He’s just an amazing musician. Beyond that, he’s a good-hearted, outgoing person, much more than I. The show will have a solid musical foundation. We started out as a music show and then other things were added to it. And this new incarnation will evolve in the same way. We’re looking for writers to create some new serial business and we’ll see. The door is open to all kinds of comedians, sketch writers — interesting, dorky people who write comedy.”

For his part, Thile told the Burlington Free Press that he’s still formulating ideas on how A Prairie Home Companion will change once he settles into the host role, but he expects it will reflect a musician is in charge. “He’s [Keillor] created something that will stand the test of time,” he told that paper. “I look forward to taking that and running with it. Since I’m a musician there will probably be more music, but as an ardent admirer of the show I will strive not to mess it up for anyone.”

All this talk about music, specifically, is pretty exciting, and it goes far beyond the weekly radio performance platform. Look around at most roots music gigs — festivals, house concerts, clubs, church basements, parks, wherever, whatever — and you’ll notice a sea of us with gray hair, who buy the tickets and crowd around the merch tables. We are the aging fan base, and while Thile represents hundreds of younger performers who are carrying forward and building on the traditional music, there also needs to be a generational change in the audience. Putting my trust in Keillor and Thile, I’m starting to feel as if A Prairie Home Companion could be the starting point of a significant musical paradigm shift. And with that, my panic attack is subsiding.

This was originally published at No Depression dot com, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.

Photo credit: Claudia Danielson