Mark Twain. Will Rogers. Garrison Keillor. Each generation seems blessed with a humorist who, instead of standing off in the distance and pointing out the incongruities in American life, stands shoulder to shoulder with ordinary men and women. Our homegrown satirists have descended into the muck and mire of race and politics and religion to identify the best and the worst of America. Using words as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, our beloved social commentators have made us understand how far we, as a nation, have come and how far we have yet to go. Now the best of them, a man who combined music and poetry and narrative to reflect on our national pulse, is hanging it up.


I was just a kid behind the wheel of a battered Chevy Chevette negotiating I-494 from my apartment in Bloomington to downtown St. Paul on my way to my first “real” job as a process-server; going to law school at night. On those early morning drives, I’d tune into Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and listen to The Morning Show, a program featuring musical guests scheduled to be on A Prairie Home Companion (PHC), Keillor’s iconic Saturday evening radio variety show. Charlie McGuire, Leo Kottke, Prudence Johnson, Bill Staines and a plethora of other musicians enlivened my morning drives. Hailing from late seventies Duluth—the rebirth of the Arrowhead’s arts and culture and music scene still decades in the future—The Morning Show’s cavalcade of music was a revelation. In addition, faux advertisements and commentary and puns and jokes intertwined with the music. It all added up to an auditory experience unlike anything I’d ever encountered. I was hooked. My love of all things Keillor became engrained in my Northern Minnesota soul. Once I married my sweetheart and Rene’ joined me in the Cities, we made frequent trips back to Duluth. During our drives home, we tuned into MPR and listened to PHC.


Decades passed. Rene’ and I are still together. We’ve raised four sons and we’re now grandparents. Our boys grew up listening to PHC on family vacations. Our boys have also seen Mr. Keillor at the Fitzgerald Theater and at the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. They‘ve grown up listening to The News from Lake Wobegon. They’ve been raised on Garrison’s wicked political satire. Assessing Mr. Keillor’s impact on my family and the countless other American families who tuned into his broadcasts is difficult. One doesn’t want to exaggerate. That would be, well, so un-Norwegian, so un-Lake Wobegonian. And yet, it’s markedly true: Garrison Keillor’s renditions of Americana have been like no other. Is the show’s draw its not-so-subtle nostalgia, a desire for a simpler time, a more innocent world? Or is it simply the great music that draws us in? Or a mixture of the two?


It’s Friday night. Labor Day weekend. I’m sitting next to my wife beneath the soaring steel canopy of the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. Over the course of three hours, a seventy-four year old man who’s endured health scares, multiple marriages, and occasionally disappointing book sales (as all fiction authors and English majors must!) stands in a pristinely white suit (perhaps unconsciously claiming the stage persona of Samuel Clemens?), and leads the house band and guest musicians through gospel, opera, choral arrangements, folk, rock, and swing. With help from the omnipresent radio acting company, current presidential candidates make appearances as voices for GPS devices and a skittish private eye meets The Donald. We laugh. We sing. We applaud. The hour grows late. The host, cast, and musicians take a final bow. The old man at the center of it all says he’ll be back next year. Fireworks explode above the emptying stage and illuminate the night sky. We rise from hard seats and head towards the parking lot.


Very soon folk musician Chris Thiel, a member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, will begin hosting a very different sort of Prairie Home Companion. There will be no news from Lake Wobegon. Guy Noir will no longer sleuth the airways. Longtime sponsors The Ketchup Advisory Board and Powdermilk Biscuits will pull their advertisements. But rural America’s voice won’t be absent from our culture. Mr. Keillor will continue to narrate The Writer’s Almanac; a podcast I listen to for inspiration every morning before I write. He’ll pen novels set in the little town that time forgot. He’ll craft essays for The New Yorker and national newspapers where he’ll challenge us to aspire to be better than we are. And maybe, just maybe, on Labor Day weekend, 2017, the tall, gangly man in the white linen suit will climb down from the grandstand stage, microphone in hand, and sing “America the Beautiful” with ten thousand fellow Minnesotans.


Things change and, as families drive across this great land, their car radios tuned to MPR, or as dairy farmers listen in as they muck out their barns, or as older folks settle into recliners listening in as they wait out winter, it’s unlikely that Chris Thiel will make folks forget Garrison Keillor. But as the old man himself might say, “Give the kid a chance. You might like what you hear.”


I know I will.



(c) 2016

(An edited version of this essay appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on 09/11/2016)



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