Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).
“It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown …”
Garrison Keillor said those words one last time on Saturday night before signing off of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a show he has helmed in some form or another since more than 40 years ago. The show didn’t just unexpectedly gather multimillions of fans from coast to coast but helped reinvigorate a whole medium. In the words of colleague Scott Simon on NPR, “all of us who share this sliver on the radio spectrum know we wouldn’t be in business if Garrison Keillor hadn’t made a new thing called public radio truly sing.”
So Keillor’s last show bears its share of symbolism as it stood amidst a shifting landscape. Just as Keillor passes the torch to talented young musician/composer Chris Thile, so too has the transition from an odd little local variety show to a worldwide phenomenon taken us from a cold war and national malaise and a radio medium looking to stay vital to the age of the Internet and a world where the audio medium is as hot as ever through podcasting.
Keillor himself took the occasion of the final broadcast, as he always has, to put over a younger generation of talent. The performance featured duets with five talented women: Sara Watkins (a former guest host and bandmate of Thile in Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo. Watkins got to sing “One Last Time,” a song on her just-released album, and joined Jarosz and O’Donovan in work they do as a trio called I’m With Her.
And “with” is probably the best preposition to explain Keillor’s appeal: He performs with his guests, house musicians and comic players, and has as much fun as anybody. He shares greetings from the studio audience with the world. He brings us with him into the fictional small town of Lake Woebegon, until we can smell the coffee in the Chatterbox Cafe and see the aisles of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. And he laughs with his characters and the world, not at them.
Keillor and this show have a special relationship with our family, as we would gather to listen and laugh and love the music. It almost seems outmoded now, as today parents and kids all have their own smartphones and tablets and TVs and their own fragmented entertainment, yet there we were, our mom and various combinations of three sons, brought together by this tall, awkward stranger and his friends via the radio airwaves.
We also grew up in a small town that could have been, for all intents and purposes, Lake Woebegon. Weedsport, N.Y., a town of less than 2,000, is bigger than Keillor’s imaginary Minnesota hometown, but it had everything else — a rural setting, an ongoing struggle for identity and families who knew one another for generations. His stories felt like they could have happened on our streets .. or on the streets of many a small town. Popular culture highlighting a small town in a humbly celebratory light was rare then (and still is), so us small-town folks take a certain pride; Keillor is, in a way, one of our own who made good.
Many of these blog things talk about what we can learn from somebody’s success, and true to form, here are three things Keillor teaches us:
1. The power of storytelling. Those of us who work in communications speak of (and sometimes present on) the power of storytelling, and Keillor was a master of craft, character and consistency. Creating Lake Wobegon from scratch is an amazing accomplishment — so just think of the storytelling we can do with real people! Radio might be the best pure modern manifestation for storytelling. We hear words and inflections and fill in the blanks with the theater of our minds. No different than tales told over fires to friends about legends of old, or to our tucked-in children with powerful, positive lessons. Podcasting is simply radio on demand, and “Serial” becoming one of the biggest recent phenomena in any medium shows the audio storytelling format remains as potent as ever.
2. Generosity. His cohorts are not as famous as Keillor, but that’s not because he tries to upstage them. Quite the opposite. In his final show, Keillor made sure to give particular spotlight to longtime companions like versatile voice actor Tim Russell and sound-effects maestro Fred Newman. He gave pianist and musical director Richard Dworsky his own shine, and has always been the #1 fan of his house band in whatever combination they are (Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band remains my favorite). He let the voices of the aforementioned five talented women take up nearly as much time in his farewell show as his own familiar baritone.
3. Community. Long before Facebook or email or the Internet, Keillor created a community all his own. And I’m not even talking about Lake Wobegon — he created a very real community with fans everywhere who could fall into warm discussion of the show, their favorite sketches, the most memorable songs. Moreover, his stories were about universal themes — love and loss, striving for acceptance, family relations and wanting to do better. The community he created formed a rising tide that helped lift then-fledgling public radio into the national cultural consciousness, and NPR remains a community — virtual and otherwise — that connects people with information, with ideas and with a world beyond themselves. Not bad for a shy English major.
And so we say goodbye to Keillor and to his familiar hometown of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. The whole experience has been far, far above average. We are all better from the time with this imaginary place and with all of Keillor’s encouraging words.