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June 25 - July 1, 2009

Your home companion
Author and humorist Garrison Keillor visits Boulder
by Adam Perry

I’m not a storyteller, but I impersonate one,” Garrison Keillor, host of the 35-year-old PBS radio program A Prairie Home Companion, likes to say.
Since 1974, Prairie Home (an old-style variety show) has masterfully represented the heart of America via Minnesota by highlighting advertisements for faux sponsors, creating recurring characters like the hair-brained detective Guy Noir, and airing Keillor’s intimate monologues from Lake Wobegon, a fictitious Midwestern town inspired by Keillor’s native Anoka, Minn.

The show is now performed not only in the Twin Cities, where Keillor and his family spend most of their time, but also taped before huge audiences at landmark venues around the country, still spreading the spirit of a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Indeed, Sarah Palin might have won some votes last year by promising to bring “a little bit of Lake Wobegon Main Street” to Washington, rather than Wasilla.

Keillor, who will turn 67 this summer, has also “impersonated” a musician for a good portion of his now four-decade-long radio career, singing classic American songs, parodies and jingles and collaborating with the myriad musical guests A Prairie Home Companion has featured over the years.

The Radio Hall of Fame inductee, film star and author of almost 20 books is in town this week to speak and sign copies of his 2008 Viking novel Liberty: A Lake Wobegon Novel at Unity of Boulder Church, but in a recent interview we mostly wanted to see why he’s always been so excited about music.

Boulder Weekly: When did you first start singing?

Garrison Keillor: I started singing as a small child in church, and at home with my family, praising the Lord and singing songs that beseeched others to confess their sins and accept the Lord’s mercy. Songs like “Just As I Am Without One Plea” and “This World Is Not My Home,” which is truly heartrending. And “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” And the elegant “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Those are songs that are for private intense moments, not really meant for public performance, though sometimes I get carried away.

BW: Did you really drive around looking for the remains of Buddy Holly’s plane when you were a kid? My 10th grade teacher played us a video of you telling that story, and it’s stayed with me ever since.

GK: I loved Buddy Holly and was horrified by his death, but did not skip school that cold morning and drive down to Iowa to look for the plane, as I said in that story. I wanted to, but I was an obedient kid. Fiction gives us a second chance to do what we should’ve done the first time.

BW: What keeps you elated about music?

GK: What moves me most, I guess, is before the show when I can walk out in the crowd and everybody sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” (in the key of G) and “America the Beautiful” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” and I get to sing tenor or bass to a big choir. I’ve heard too many singer/songwriters, and I’m afraid I have no ear for it anymore. It’s like people in Hershey, Pa., don’t care for chocolate that much. But I never get tired of standing close to a group of people and being uplifted by four-part harmony. That’s why I hang out with church people.

BW: What kind of music do you think Guy Noir listens to?

GK: Guy is an old jazz-head, and he loves the early funky Louis Armstrong sides and those cool bands from the ’50s, like Woody Herman’s and the old Dave Brubeck Quartet and Gerry Mulligan and Miles. When Guy hears guitars, he sort of quails inwardly. He’s a piano man.

BW: You resigned from a radio program in 1971 because they “interfered with your music programming.” What happened?

GK: I got a memo in my mailbox back then saying that I could only play classical music in the morning and not slip in any more Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” or Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead, and it just struck me a certain way, and I took a hike. I’ve taken a couple hikes in my life, and I don’t regard them as any big deal, but I do think that you do a favor to your fellow DJs if you throw a fastball at management now and then.

BW: What are some of your favorite musical performances from Prairie Home Companion’s history? And what artists have you never been able to get on that you’ve always wanted to?

GK: We’ve had a number of guests who I consider blessed souls, including k.d. lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Odetta, Elvis Costello, Jearlyn Steele, Jerry Douglas, Emmanuel Ax, Chet Atkins — people who are full of the spirit and bring it to the audience shining new. I’d love to get Dolly Parton on, and Merle Haggard, and maybe we will.

BW: I recently watched a clip of you on David Letterman’s show in 1985 (wearing black shoes — “slow-walking shoes,” you said) and was wondering what your thoughts were on his current Sarah Palin controversy.

GK: I like Letterman and wish him well. A comedian is supposed to get into trouble now and then. I haven’t for a long time, and it’s worrying me.

For More Info:
Garrison Keillor discusses his new book, Liberty: A Lake Wobegon Novel, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 1, at the Unity of Boulder Church, 2855 Folsom Ave., Boulder, 303-442-1411.

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