'42-year detour' ends: Garrison Keillor homeward bound

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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Garrison Keillor, the humorist and longtime host of A Prairie Home Companion on US public radio network NPR, hung up his microphone this week. The final episode of Companion to be hosted by Keillor was recorded yesterday at the Hollywood Bowl with 18,000 people in attendance. It was broadcast today.

File photo of Garrison Keillor.
Image: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg News / Landov.

Musician Chris Thile takes over as host in October. Thile is expected to keep the program's basic format intact while updating its content.

Keillor, 73, created A Prairie Home Companion in 1974, and it turned into a "42-year detour". He had gone to Nashville, he said, "to write about the Grand Ole Opry for The New Yorker." Keillor found Nashville "so unbuttoned. All of these wonderful performers — Porter Wagoner was there, and Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff. They were all children of the Depression, and they felt so lucky to have whatever they had. And it was really a happy place. So I got seduced by that into trying to start my own show."

On Friday, Keillor said he kept going for the friendship. "[I]t was to get to meet people if you had no social skills. And people would walk up to you and say, 'I heard you on the radio.' This was the beginning of a conversation that would lead in all sorts of interesting directions." The final episode changed direction very little; Keillor added duets with five of his favorite singers, then closed the show with a medley he performed alone.

Companion highlighted the sensibilities of the Midwest of Keillor's youth. His on-air persona was a throwback; a "radio bard" telling amusing stories spun from the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Now, he says, that version of the Midwest "is receding in the rear-view mirror at high speed."

Garrison Keillor was one of six children raised in a fundamentalist family in Anoka, Minnesota. Television was forbidden in the home, but their large Zenith radio allowed him to listen to rhythm and blues music and serials like Lassie.

Keillor began writing after deciding he wanted to play football, only to learn that he had a heart defect. "So instead of playing football, I wrote about football. No better thing for a kid, than to write about actual things that are happening before your eyes. [...] I was very, very lucky." His broadcasting career started after a speech coach suggested he could overcome his fear of performing in front of other people by taking off his glasses. "And when you learn that you don't have to be afraid of people you can't see, you've taken a step towards broadcasting, you see?"

42 years later, Keillor says he plans to resume writing. A memoir and a screenplay are in the works.