A Prairie Home Replacement
Can Chris Thile—or anyone else—ever take Garrison Keillor's place?
Like Guy Noir, private eye, Garrison Keillor is preparing to turn out the light on the twelfth floor of the Acme Building and slip into the dark night of a city that knows how to keep its secrets. The longtime host announced Monday he would step down from A Prairie Home Companion, his 41-year-old public radio variety show, in a year’s time. But his retirement isn’t the death knell for the Keillor universe—the twilight of those Norwegian bachelor farmers, the last batch of Powdermilk Biscuits, Dusty and Lefty’s last roundup—because Chris Thile, the one-time child prodigy mandolinist for Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, will take over in his stead.
Thile’s anointment will be a test of just why people feel so strongly about A Prairie Home Companion—some positive, some extremely negative, some just drowsy from the soothing tones of Keillor’s gravelly bass intonation. In a statement to the AP Monday, Thile said he and the incumbent “have lengthily discussed the future of the show with me as host and agree that we should give it a go. There are, for course, plenty of details to iron out, but I'm very excited!” Keillor, for his part, said he expected Thile to return the show to its roots as a musical variety show. If you listen to PHC regularly, it’s clear that Keillor cares a great deal about the music programming. He chooses the guests carefully, speaks to them with real interest and obvious research, and joins them for musical numbers. This may be a peculiar sort of music—it’s literally your father’s music—but it isn’t just window dressing in the way musical guests often can be.
But is that why listeners tune in week after week? I suspect not. What they want is to hear Keillor’s self-consciously cheesy skits—Guy Noir and the American Duct Tape Council and the old-school radio special-effects gags. And, of course, they want to hear Keillor’s soothing, mellow relation of that week’s news from the fictional Lake Wobegon. What Keillor is offering listeners is a set of comfy, musty, fusty, and dusty Midwestern roots: “The little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” It’s a place the listeners probably didn’t come from—these are coastal NPR elites, after all—and that never existed anyway, which is the attraction: familiar enough to soothe, fictional enough to be endearing.
The Lutheran church choir director; the wistfully aging parents; the above-average children; the matronly, melancholy, good-hearted waitresses; the thick, red-velveted town theater and its majestic old Wurlitzer—it’s this idealized image of middle America that either draws listeners in, hoping for a brief respite in their Saturday night, or drives them away, rolling their eyes at the cornball shtick. Peter Ostroushko is a great musician, but it’s unlikely 4 million listeners a week are tuning in to hear him play folk standards.
So the question is whether they’ll tune in to hear Thile do it. In some ways, Thile is a natural choice. Like Keillor, he’s a consummate showman with a flair for the whimsical, though his sensibility may skew closer to the twee than the corny. He loves roots music and has cred with musicians. He’s already a ubiquitous presence on public radio. But the Californian doesn’t have much of a claim on the Midwest, and it seems much of his success will hinge on his ability as a raconteur. Although Keillor says the news from Lake Wobegon will go the way of so many small-town news outlets and vanish, some fancy Keillor as a modern-day Mark Twain, and storytelling is a fundamental element of the show.
Even if Thile is a good fit for A Prairie Home Companion, A Prairie Home Companion is a curious fit for Thile. At 34, he’s less than half Keillor’s age and has a busy musical career. He has frequent gigs with Punch Brothers, your snobby bluegrass-fan friend’s answer to Mumford and Sons. Nickel Creek, the band he co-founded at 8, recently reunited after a hiatus. He’s a sought-after instrumentalist for other musicians and collaborates with symphonies and classical musicians like Edgar Meyer and Yo-Yo Ma. In 2012, he won a MacArthur Genius grant. Thile isn’t a lazy revivalist or formulaic pop-confectioneer—though he’s an earnest young man, his mandolin playing is truly astonishing, and Punch Brothers strives for musical innovation. A typical set might include a few bluegrass standards, a passel of originals, a dash of Debussy, and one of the all-acoustic Radiohead covers that have made the group Internet celebrities:
What will Thile have to sacrifice to take on the show, and how long will he do it? Having been a national star before he was even in his teens, Thile may be aging more quickly than the rest of us, but he still seems too young and ambitious for the velvet handcuffs of a weekly radio show that’s had a single host for the past four decades.
Of course, Keillor has never been quite as fusty and backward as his detractors like to assume—or as his fans like to imagine. Like Thile, he keeps a prickly, challenging interior under a crunchy, sugary shell. Even as Keillor plays with the nostalgia of old-time radio, he’s subverting those tropes and tweaking historical memory and the mores of small-town Minnesota. The show has long been a platform for its host’s progressive politics (this is public radio, after all), and anyone who doubts Keillor’s sharp edge should read his famous 2006 evisceration of a book by Bernard-Henri Levy, whom he describes as “a French writer with a spatter-paint prose style and the grandiosity of a college sophomore” with a “childlike love of paradox,” who “worships Woody Allen and Charlie Rose in terms that would make Donald Trump cringe with embarrassment.” (Timely!)
When I first read the Levy review, it was a revelation—I’d always suspected Keillor’s tongue was lodged in his cheek, but could never quite tell for sure, or how much. Reading him mow down Levy’s lazy stereotypes of Americans and America, it becomes clear how much A Prairie Home Companion is a loving skewering of many of the conventions that it seems to propagate.
Does earnest young Mr. Thile have the skepticism required to carry through this satire? Most listeners probably won’t care. But his success will likely hinge on whether he can offer a satisfying replacement for Keillor’s grandfatherly, Midwestern balm. If he can’t it will indeed be a very quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, out there on the edge of the prairie.