Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Garrison Keillor, the host and creator of the radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion,” about what goes on during intermission, why he enjoys duets and his retirement plans.
CP: For the Summer Love Tour, the shows are not being taped. Does that affect your approach, as a host, or the content of the show?
GK: It does. It means that we're free as birds. We do a lot of improvisation, and we don't watch the clock as closely as a person has to in radio. On Saturdays, we have 1 hour 58 minutes and 40 seconds, exactly, and that's all we have. On the road, we've been doing a longer show and sort of proceeding at a stately pace. It's sort of a vacation show. It's a vacation from the second hand of the clock.
CP: The show often stops at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, but you haven't been to Chattanooga before. What, if anything, did you know about Chattanooga before we ended up on your tour schedule?
GK: I don't know anything, and that's why I want to go. Being on the road is educational. So you head out and see America. You discover that Kansas City has more fountains than Paris and broad boulevards and fabulous art museums. Everywhere you go, you learn something you didn't know before.
CP: You generally make plenty of references to the town hosting the show when you're on the road. Where do you do your research?
GK: We come in early in the morning. You can always do a little bit of research online, but we walk around and look at things and talk to people. I always write a song about the town and do that at the top of the show right after the theme. I've been doing that all along the road. It's a little irregular song rhymed lines, and people seem to like it.
CP: When you're on stage in a situation like Summer Love knowing that you're not being broadcast, do you feel less pressure, as a host?
GK: No, it's not a matter of pressure, exactly. It's that you're just out to have a good time, and you can change direction quickly. The band is waiting, expecting you to do one thing, and you go off and you do anther. It's more like the show was in the early years, before we became professional and disciplined and learned to fit a great deal into slightly less than two hours. It's really like the early show in that it has that free-wheeling, light-hearted aspect to it.
Maybe the show on Saturday should be more like this tour show. I've often thought so. It's a great deal of fun, and that's why we do it. I just believe in live performance, and I believe in standing up in front of people and doing what we do.
There's a part of the show I love, especially, which is the intermission. People stand up, and if they want to go out, they can, or if they want, they can stand around, and I walk out in the crowd, and we sing songs together. We sing songs that everyone knows, and we sing them quietly in three- or four-part harmony. It's really very moving.
We sing a little bit of “America the Beautiful” and a little bit of “Amazing Grace” and “You Are My Sunshine” and “Can't Help Falling In Love With You” and a Beatles song or two. It's really very touching. People don't get a chance to do this as often as they would like, except in church, of course. In church, you have to deal with the organist, who is trying to show off his organ. It's a quiet, sweet, a cappella moment in the show, and it's something we don't do on the broadcast. Don't ask me why; I don't know.
CP: Sara Watkins was the first guest host for the show in January, and she's returning as a musical guest for the Chattanooga show. Do you expect her to try and wrest the reins from you or do you think she'll graciously concede the spotlight?
GK: Oh, I don't know. I don't know. We'll see.
She does a fiddle face off with our fiddler, Richard Kriehn, which is really quite something to see. He's about two and a half times her size. They stand toe to toe and battle it out with a couple of fiddle tunes.
She's a beautiful signer, and I sing a couple of few duets with her. That's the other reason for doing this show, that I get to do duets, which is a great pleasure for an English major.
CP: How early into the show did you begin incorporating the duet? Was it from the onset or did it take time to build up the nerve to sing on live radio?
GK: Oh, I've always had the nerve, but it's not easy to find the partners. Most people like to step out solo and have their say. Duets are really becoming more and more rare, I think. That's my impression.
We've done a blues duet on “Love in Vain,” and that's practically unknown in blues. In jazz, you don't really do duets. Country music is kind of a last surviving place; that and opera, of course. I just like the idea of standing next to a person and having two voices wrap themselves around each other.
It's a very mysterious thing how voices blend or do not blend. Hers and mine might sound very good together. She has a very young voice and I have … the voice that I have. But there's a way to make them blend, and that's what we strive to do.
CP: What if the two voices don't meld as well as you might hope? Is there still a sense of creative reward from that?
GK: Well, nothing comes out exactly as you might like. We're cursed with perfectionism. Having done the show for all these years, what's the alternative? There still is pleasure in it. It never sounds bad, and if doesn't sound exactly right, you just hurry on to the next thing. You cut a verse into a chorus and skip to the next thing. Keep moving forward, don't look back.
CP: For all the issues plaguing the country in the last several years, things in Lake Wobegon, despite its fair share of small town abnormality, seem to have remained fairly untouched. Do you think people relish the idea of hearing about a place, even a fictional one, where things remain a little simpler?
GK: I don't know that they are simpler. It's a small town, so it maybe is a little less restless than other places. But raising children is never a simple thing, and the Christian faith is never a simple thing, and farming is never simple. Those are three very, very complicated, dramatic enterprises that most people in Lake Wobegon are tied into.
To walk around and profess Christian faith is to be perpetually in doubt and perpetually inadequate, and I think everybody in Lake Wobegon knows that. We are a self-accusing people.
And children - I don't know anybody with children who feels that their life is simple. Even when children seem to turn out well, one is never quite sure. There is no suffering like experiencing, vicariously, the troubles of your own children. And it never ends; parenthood never ends. This is one thing you realize, when you get to my age.
CP: Speaking of age, I read that you told the AARP that you plan to retire from the show when you turn 70, which is next year, assuming you've found a suitable replacement. What would you do with yourself if you didn't have the show?
GK: [Laughs.] I've stretched it to the very end of the 70th year. I've told them, I think, July 2013. That is still the plan. There are people standing 20 feet from me, who don't take that seriously, but I think that's a good plan.
I want the show to continue, and for it to continue, I think it's important to design a transition, rather than keep on doing it until I fall over, when someone would suddenly have to step over me and up to the microphone. That's not a nice thing to expect of anybody.
CP: Has the process already started to audition for replacements? What would you hope for in your successor?
GK: I want to bring in a sort of tide of people in their 20s, bring in a lot of young faces and young voices. I think I'll probably have a series of guest hosts to ease us over the transition period. It seems much kinder than to throw everything on the back of one designated replacement.
I just don't think the hosting of a show like this is so terribly important. I think it can be done by a lot of person. Lake Wobegon will fade away, and that's a good thing. I would not give that to other writers to continue.
There will certainly be a spoken element to the show. What I like is a certain kind of storytelling, which is maybe a little bit more urban and has become very popular among young people - storytelling such as they do in The Moth [Radio Hour] program, where you have 5, 8 or 10 minutes to get up and tell a story, and it has to be true and not invented. We've had a few of these on the show, and I really liked them. Radio loves the individual voice. Everybody has at least one good story in them - I believe that - and you just have to find out what it is. Some people have more than one, but everyone has at least one.
I like the idea of turning that part of the show into something that is a little more democratic with different voices, so you would never know what was coming on a Saturday. That's my idea, anyway, and like many of my ideas, it might turn out to be a ridiculous failure, but I believe in that. We're just pressing forward toward that date, and I think it's going to be a success. I'm looking forward to it.
CP: What do you think it will be like to have the tables turned, to turn on the radio on Saturdays to listen instead of host?
GK: I don't know. I think it will be fun, but for a while, I will be back stage because my role, as the gray eminence, is to give confidence to people. This is my responsibility. So I need to be off stage, and I need to be a reassuring presence and tell people that they're doing great and give an opinion, when asked.
That's what a 70-year-old person should be doing, and not standing up there and singing duets about passionate love with a woman in her late 20s. [Laughs.] As pleasant as that is, may I say, just between us two men.
CP: So many radio shows have fallen by the wayside, particularly in the format of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Why do you think your show has lasted almost 40 years? Looking back, what are you doing that other shows haven't?
GK: That's a good question. I think a crucial factor - and I say this seriously - is that the show was always live. This meant that I never listen to it myself. I was doing it, but I never sat in a studio control room and listened to what I was doing. That would have been discouraging. I think that was a big factor.
Also, it was very rough and sort of amateurish. You just kept thinking that, “Gosh, we can do better than this.” I mean, there was a lot of room for improvement.
CP: When you say “improvement,” how do you feel like you did improve?
GK: I don't know. I don't think about that so much. The gate opens, and you run. Then, there's a little period of remorse afterward and suffering, and you recover and forget about it and go do it again. It's a very interesting cycle, a weekly cycle of strenuous effort, followed by regret, followed by memory loss, followed by back to the drawing board.
CP: Sounds like journalism.
GK: Yes! Except you're on this daily circadian rhythm, and that has got to be exhausting.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...