Garrison Keillor: The Grandfather of Americana Music
Garrison Keillor is a sneaky guy. Over the last 40 years he has quietly, but consistently, worked his way into the homes of America on that forgotten medium – live radio broadcasts – from his home in Minnesota. He was retro before retro was even close to cool. Like Mark Twain and Will Rogers, he brought with him his own brand of wit, charm, and an imagination filled with limitless stories and characters from the mythical hometown, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. The response to his show on National Public Radio has been enormous as he was discovered mostly through word of mouth. To be sure, he is a satirist in the tradition of Randy Newman. But, he’s less biting than the Randy Bard. His characters may laugh at themselves along the way. They always recognize their own humanity in their foibles and, usually, if there’s not some kind of lesson centered around the conclusion, there are at least observations on the wonder and absurdity of life in small town America “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
But the sneakiest thing of all is the way his weekly show has taken the place of the Grand Ole Opry in finding and promoting new talent in Americana music where most true and authentic country music now resides. It has become one of the places to watch when rising talents appear: signpost to career success. A Prairie Home Companion became a reality after Keillor was researching a story on the Opry in 1973. The musical guests have tended to be the best in country, folk, and Americana music who have appeared on the show over the years. They have included Iris Dement, Greg Brown, the Flatlanders, Ashley Monroe, Emmylou Harris, and Chet Atkins to name but a few. Keillor himself has also taken up singing on the show. He leans toward singing traditional southern gospel songs like “Softly and Tenderly (Jesus Is Calling).” However, often has he been known to sing Hank Snow’s “Hello Love.” So, the music has always been a centerpiece of the show.
A Prairie Home Companion debuted before a live audience in 1974. Keillor brought back the old-school radio variety show before a live audience. It consisted of a variety of cast members doing music and comedy skits with live and often over-the-top sound effects. One of the trademarks of the show features fictional commercials with made up businesses like Powder Milk Biscuits, which “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.” Another well-known fictional sponsor has been Bebop-a-Reebop Rhubarb Pie, which is “sweetening the sour taste of failure through the generations.” The show also consists of serial melodramas including the well-loved “Adventures of Guy Noir, Private Eye.”
But, the perennial favorite and probably most well-known portion of the show has become “News from Lake Wobegon.” Although the fictional town has a basis in reality, there is a small town in Minnesota Keillor had in mind, but ultimately it is Every Small Town, U.S.A. In essence it’s the rural farm communities that he had in mind; the imaginary town became his backdrop for his unique narrative.
Storytelling was becoming a lost art prior to Garrison Keillor’s arrival on the national scene. However, Keillor has adorned Lake Wobegon with such detail it even has its own history. According to Keillor the founders were New England Unitarian missionaries. One of the missionaries came to convert the Native American tribe, the Ojibwe Indians, with the help of interpretive dance. A college was founded but most of the people were devoured by bears during a severe winter. The only survivor was a pragmatic woman who married a Canadian fur-trapper who fed her in exchange for chores. This became Lake Wobegon. The population today is made up of German immigrants and members of the Catholic parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. Of course, there are the Norwegian and Swedish immigrants who populate Lake Wobegon who are devout Lutherans. It is from these citizens that Keillor draws his most colorful and often quirky characters for sometimes hilarious, sometimes thoughtful stories. These are told during the “News from Lake Wobegon” segment of A Prairie Home Companion. It is the portion of the show that is not to be missed.
A memorable episode from the “News” archives is “Buddy Holly and the Pharaohs of Rhythm.” The story, told in the first person as though it was something that really happened during his youth, covers the day Buddy Holly died. The three teenage characters have started a band in honor of Buddy called the Pharaohs of Rhythm. Keillor describes them as nerdy boys who identify more with Holly than they do Elvis. He states clearly that Holly was Lutheran friendly. Unlike Elvis, he was “sanctification by grace,” a good boy who they could imagine would date their sister. When they hear of Holly’s death, they drive to the crash site in Iowa. The main character then finds Holly’s guitar lodged in the snow. He describes it as a kind of Excalibur that he dare not touch. He concludes by singing “Everyday” a capella. This is one example of a myriad stories that describe the American experience from the worms-eye view of an ordinary character who goes out and does extraordinary things.
But the sneaky part of Garrison Keillor as a storyteller and a sometimes philosophical thinker is the unpredictability of his views. In a 1985 interview with the Christian satirical magazine, The Wittenburg Door, he was asked to comment on the scandals surrounding Jimmy Swaggart. Rather than tear into him, Keillor gave an astute defense. Speaking about fundamentalist evangelists in general he said, “They are the rock-and-rollers of the Church. Evangelists are supposed to get out there and shake it; their one simple job is to shake people loose from their illusions… to look us straight in the eye and say, ‘Whatever you are doing doesn’t matter. None of your illusions matter. There is only one thing that matters.’”
The same holds true of politics. On one of his shows he announced the death of President Ronald Reagan. While some in the audience cheered, Keillor quietly sang a hymn in honor of the late president.
So, if some Saturday afternoon, you are inclined, turn your radio on and give a listen to A Prairie Home Companion. Even better, the show is touring this summer and Keillor and crew will be coming to San Diego. It’s a great opportunity to see a historic show that has been entertaining people for the last 40 years. Although, the town of Lake Wobegon is described as being “out on the edge of the prairie,” the show has truly found a place in the heartland of America and has captured the soul of Small Town, U.S.A.
Garrison Keillor brings his Prairie Home Companion Radio Romance Tour to Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay on Monday, July 15, 8pm. The venue is located at 2241 Shelter Island Drive; www.humphreysconcerts.com
This article originally appeared in San Diego Troubadour