ST. PAUL, Minn. – No more Guy Noir, Private Eye. No more tales of Dusty and Lefty, the luckless cowboys. And no more weekly “News From Lake Wobegon,” the imaginary Minnesota town famous for strong women, good-looking men and above-average children.
Those signature comedy sketches will vanish from the airwaves when humorist and best-selling author Garrison Keillor retires as host of his popular public radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” this summer. After Keillor, whose sonorous voice and witty writing entertained millions of listeners for four decades, steps down, mandolin ace Chris Thile of the bands Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek will step in as the first full-time replacement host in October.
“I thought that the show should press the restart and not try to replicate what it has evolved into,” Keillor said, “but go back to the beginning and revive itself as a music show with comedy add-ons.”
Some things won’t change, Keillor and Thile say. The show’s name will remain “A Prairie Home Companion” (for now), its home base will stay at the 1,000-seat, elegantly restored Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul, and the live show will keep its two-hour Saturday evening time slot. Keillor says he will remain as executive producer and “a remote, benevolent gray eminence who phones in his thoughts every so often.”
“Garrison created a template that I think is immortal,” an effervescent Thile said during a recent interview on the Fitzgerald stage. “It doesn’t feel like any kind of constraint. It’s like a license. I feel like I have my license to go and make some good radio.”
But if the shows Thile guest-hosted in January and February are any indication, listeners can expect a hipper batch of musical performers. Singer-songwriter Ben Folds, alt-country singer Brandi Carlile, multi-instrumentalist and whistler Andrew Bird and Paul Simon – perhaps the biggest musical name to ever perform on “Prairie Home” – were among the guests. Thile just had to pick up the phone and see if Simon was available.
Keillor praises Thile’s musical connections as well as his respect for old-time bluegrass music.
“It seems to me if anybody was meant to host and produce a musical variety show that has real intensity and integrity, it’s him,” Keillor said in a telephone interview.
At 35, Thile is three years older than when Keillor, now 73, started the show in 1974. The sandy-haired singer gushes when talking about succeeding Keillor.
“The prospect of getting to make things for people on a weekly basis ... is beyond compare. It’s what I love to do,” said Thile, who began listening to “Prairie Home” as a boy. Thile was 15 when he made his first appearance on the show in 1996 and has made a dozen or more visits since then.
Instead of Keillor’s weekly monologue about Norwegian bachelor farmers and other residents of his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Thile plans to write a new song every week that may take into account who is on the show. “Prairie Home” pianist and composer Richard Dworsky will remain, and Thile plans to bring back regular performers Tim Russell, Sue Scott and sound-effects guy Fred Newman but perhaps pair them with guest actors or comedians.
“Prairie Home” undoubtedly will lose its Minnesota worldview with Anoka native Keillor gone. Thile was born in San Diego, grew up in Idyllwild in the San Jacinto mountains of Southern California and has lived in Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; San Francisco and New York. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, actress Claire Coffee of the TV show “Grimm,” and their young son. Thile plans to stay in Portland, where “Grimm” is filmed, and commute for “Prairie Home.”
Thile said the new “Prairie Home” will reflect “the increasingly diffuse experience that most people have.”
Keillor will tape his final “Prairie Home” on July 1 at the Hollywood Bowl in California for broadcast the next day in its regular time slot. Thile makes his debut as replacement host Oct. 15 at the Fitzgerald. A 13-show season is planned at first, about half a normal 26-show run.
A big part of the show’s revenue comes from stations that pay to carry it. Bill Thomas, director of radio for Prairie Public Broadcasting in North Dakota, said he plans to sign up for the new season to give Thile a chance.
“I suspect a lot of people will say they don’t like it, it’s not Garrison Keillor,” Thomas said. “Of course it won’t be. We’ll just have to see.”
Both Thile and Keillor say public radio stations need to rally around the new show. “Prairie Home” has a weekly audience of more than 3.5 million listeners on 700 public radio stations in the U.S. When Keillor originally tried to retire in 1987, a substitute show, “Good Evening,” hosted by Noah Adams of public radio’s “All Things Considered,” lasted just a year.
“I think (“Prairie Home”) needs to be handed off to somebody and not just go into rerun purgatory,” Keillor said. “I really think this guy (Thile) brings something to public radio that public radio needs.”