I miss Garrison Keillor

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Saturday, the radio in our kitchen was on at 6 p.m., and when “Prairie Home Companion” came on… we turned it off.

Instead of turning it up, which is what we usually would have done, ever since we started listening to it out in Kansas in the ’80s.

It’s just not the same without Garrison Keillor. That deep, mellifluous, soothing voice, speaking of things that prompted nostalgia and peaceful reflection on the human condition, was what the show was about. I appreciated that the new guy made a joke in the first show about his high, piping voice, but you know, after a bit it’s not funny. I’ve lost my reason to listen.

Keillor is still writing. But frankly, I’ve never liked his writing quite as much on a page or screen — I prefer to hear him say it. Also, his unspoken stuff tends to be more political, and he’s such a doctrinaire liberal that a lot of stuff he says is a bit off-putting to me.

But… I find that if I can imagine him reading it, I’m fine with it. And this latest piece in The Washington Post yesterday made it very easy to hear the voice. It was gentle, it was kind, it was reassuring, unassuming and forgiving. And when you write in a voice like that, I can handle pretty much anything you have to say. An excerpt:

Face it, Southerners are nicer people

I’ve been down in South Carolina and Georgia, an old Northern liberal in red states, enjoying a climate like April in January and the hospitality of gracious, soft-spoken people, many of whom voted for He Who Does Not Need Intelligence, but they didn’t bring it up, so neither did I.

I walked into Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston, and a waitress said, “Is there just one of you, sweetheart?” and her voice was like jasmine and teaberry. There was just one of me, though I wished there were two and she was the other one. She showed me to a table — “Have a seat, sweetheart, I’ll be right with you.” Liberal waitpersons up north would no more call you “sweetheart” than they would kiss you on the lips, and if you called one of them “sweetheart” she might hand you your hat. I ordered the fried chicken with collard greens and mashed potatoes and gravy and read a front-page story in the Charleston Post and Courier about a Republican state legislator charged with a felony for allegedly beating his wife in front of their weeping children, and then the waitress brought the food and I dug in and it was luminous, redemptive, all that chicken and gravy could be. If this is what Makes America Great Again, I am all for it….

I thought to myself, “A person could live in a town like this.” I’ve spent time with people whose politics agreed with mine and who were cold fish indeed and now that I’m elderly and have time on my hands, maybe I’d enjoy hanging out with amiable sweet-talking right-wingers. I’m just saying….

Indeed. And I miss hanging out with him on Saturday evenings…

(It’s fun when Yankees find us so captivating. Reminds me of the one year I lived above the Mason-Dixon line growing up. I attended second grade in Woodbury, NJ. I read more fluently than most 2nd-graders, and once a teacher heard me read aloud, she started lending me to other classes to read to the kids. I was happy to oblige. They thought my accent was so charming. They looked upon me as a pint-sized Ashley Wilkes, and that kind of thing can make a certain sort of Yankee lady just swoon.)

29 thoughts on “I miss Garrison Keillor

  1. Doug Ross

    I’ve read and enjoyed many of Keillor’s books but never could get into the folksy, little too cute for its own good, Prairie Home Companion.

    I’m reading a book by an author with a similar tone, Bill Bryson – most famous for “A Walk In The Woods”. His most recent book is “The Road to Little Dribbling” about his travels (mainly on foot) across Britain. As I read it, it seems clear you would also enjoy it as his love for Britain may even exceed yours. There are some true laugh-out-loud anecdotes.

    A synopsis:

    “In 1995, Iowa native Bill Bryson took a motoring trip around Britain to explore that green and pleasant land. The uproarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, is one of the most acute portrayals of the United Kingdom ever written. Two decades later, Bryson—now a British citizen—set out again to rediscover his adopted country. In these pages, he follows a straight line through the island—from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath—and shows us every pub, stone village, and human foible along the way.

    Whether he is dodging cow attacks in Torcross, getting lost in the H&M on Kensington High Street, or—more seriously—contemplating the future of the nation’s natural wonders in the face of aggressive development, Bryson guides us through the old and the new with vivid detail and laugh-out-loud humor. Irreverent, endearing, and always hilarious, The Road to Little Dribbling is filled with Bill Bryson’s deep knowledge and love of his chosen home.”

    Reply
  2. Kathryn Fenner

    I liked and miss the news from Lake Wobegon, but Dusty and Lefty and Guy Noir, et al.? Nope nope nope–they would have me reaching for the off button.

    I like Chris Thile and his music, too….

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I loved all of those. We named one of our dogs Guy Noir. But I agree that Lake Wobegon was the best.

      The new guy has just completely failed to connect with me.

      I first came to appreciate PHC one evening driving my family across the actual prairie, between Wichita and Hutchinson, KS, on the way to the State Fair (which is a big, big deal out in Kansas — at the paper there, the Fair and the wheat harvest were two of our biggest stories each year; we even had a sort of mini-bureau in Hutchinson during the fair).

      There was such a perfect connection between the flat landscape we were traversing and Keillor talking about Lake Wobegon.

      Maybe if I had an experience like that once listening to Thile, he’d start to click for me. But so far, no…

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      1. Peggy Udden

        I can’t listen to the program anymore. I miss that voice that brought such warmth and calm… a relief from my crazy week of work and chaos.

        I used to listen with my mother before she passed away of Alzheimers…

        I truly miss the Lutheran Church stories and Lake Wobegon.

        It will never be the same for me.

        Reply
          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Gilbert Gottfried? Now there’s one guy whose voice is even more irritating than the new guy. Of course, with Gottfried it’s intentional.

            I’ve tried listening to the show once or twice since this post. I didn’t hear anything that made me want to keep listening. Not the music, or anything…

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    2. Gregory S Smith

      The new generation likes the all music show but the variety show was much better I don’t watch PHC anymore. They should play the old PHCs during the week. My opine.

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      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It’s nothing now. Even the name of the show is nothing: “Live from Here?” Really?

        “Prairie Home Companion” was deeply evocative, redolent with the flavor of a half-remembered America that most of us never experienced but carry in our hearts anyway.

        “Live from Here” means nothing. Quite deliberately, I suppose…

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  3. Bryan Caskey

    Keillor’s voice was just a little too rounded and deep for me to stay awake. I would only ever occasionally come across “Prairie Home Companion” on car trips on the way back from somewhere that weekend. I couldn’t listen for very long because it would start to put me to sleep.

    A great (man’s) southern voice is Shelby Foote. I could listen to him talk about the Civil War for hours

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      1. Bryan Caskey

        Yeah, it’s too bad he didn’t read his audio book himself. I could just sit there and listen to his voice and the history wash over me in that Mississippi voice.

        I’ve listened to a small bit of the Aubrey-Maturin books on audio book when I have to drive to an outlying county for court. The reader has a good British accent and does the character voices well. It’s a very dramatic reading, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone starting out in the series. You have to be familiar with the lingo before you can just listen to it.

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        1. Scout

          You know what – that half of the first book that I have read – it was listening to the book on tape. Maybe that was the problem. I’m going to try again with the real book. Have to finish Children of the Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay first.

          The best audio books are Jim Dale doing the Harry Potter Series. Although if Gregory Peck had read To Kill A Mockingbird, that would probably win. :)

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        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          “You have to be familiar with the lingo before you can just listen to it.”

          Which reminds me of Anthony Burgess. The language seem to work very well in Kubrick’s “Clockwork,” but I wonder whether those who haven’t read the book and come to understand a bit of Nadsat can follow it…

          Seems it would give them a pain in the gulliver, oh my brothers…

          Reply
  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    I mentioned that Keillor’s voice “prompted nostalgia.”

    And it did, but it was a nostalgia for something I never lived through. I never experienced listening to dramatizations on the radio.

    So, listening to the show — including Guy Noir! — I felt like I was listening to timeless Americana. There were elements of the ’30s and ’40s mixed with stuff I could vaguely remember about growing up in small towns the ’50s. Which means the memories he was invoking were vague for me — I was 6 when the ’50s ended, and up to that time had spent most of my life in Charleston, Columbia and Norfolk (although I was in Bennettsville as often as possible). It was all sort of in soft focus, but he made it immediate.

    He invoked bygone times with respect and fondness, but from a modern sensibility.

    Again, the word “timeless” comes to mind.

    I’ve written before about my notion of the cool way to dress — a way that I identify with The Band:

    It’s an ultimately cool, casual, timeless look. They could be graduate assistants, or guys sitting on a bench outside a saloon in the Old West. I had cultivated much this same look since my high school days. I bought myself a Navy blue tweed jacket with muted reddish pinstripes running through it that to me looked EXACTLY like what the guys in the Band — or for that matter, Butch Cassidy or Sundance — might wear. I wore it with a U.S. Navy dungaree work shirt that my Dad had given me, and jeans, and scruffy suede desert boots (like the ones Art Garfunkel is wearing in this picture).

    Come to think of it, I’ve never really abandoned that look. Today, I’m wearing a vaguely green corduroy jacket with a charcoal-gray sweater vest over an unstarched sport shirt, with olive green chinos that are fraying at the cuffs….

    The Band, like Garrison Keillor, is both timeless and hard to locate (is it from the country? from out West? from Appalachia?). And autumnal. Don’t forget autumnal. Perhaps because of listening to it at Fair time in Kansas so long ago, Keillor is very autumnal…

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yikes. Just realized I’m wearing that rumpled corduroy jacket again — probably the third time this week — with khaki chinos, a white button-down shirt that’s seen better days, and this time a LIGHT gray sweater vest. And scruffy brown oxfords that have been resoled three or four times (which is about the only time they get polished).

      Now that I no longer wear a suit and tie every day, I’ve kind of settled into a more comfortable sort of sameness…

      Reply
  5. Harry Harris

    Yes, Southerners are nicer people, but often it’s about as deep as Charleston’s supposed friendliness. I know a lot of Southerners who have excellent manners, but precious little grace. We’re pretty sweet and tolerant until you challenge some of our thinking or tradition – including the social order.
    I’ve not traveled a lot, but I remember a trip to Utah years ago. Nice, polite people. I remarked sarcastically to one of my Mormon (LDS as they say) acquaintances who lived out there “You sure believe in free thought out here, don’t you?” “Yes”, he said. “You can think anything you want – just be careful about saying it.”
    Sometimes I think our niceness is a carried-forth genteel convention aimed at discouraging boat-rocking until it becomes necessary to show the nasty side. You’ve also probably got the gemeinschaft effect holding over from smaller social circles only a couple of generations from being highly agrarian. Give us a few more decades and more urbanization, and we might be just as abrupt and discourteous as our neighbors from the north – and Florida.

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    1. Bill

      Yep, I loved my granny, who was from a small upcountry mill village, but whenever she saw folks who looked and talked differently, she would say, “Them ain’t our kinda people, are they?” So, yeah, Southerners can be friendly — but it often only goes skin deep and underneath that is an ocean of distrust for folks who’re different — call’em “outsiders.”

      Reply
    2. Brad Warthen

      You could have just stopped at “Yes, Southerners are nicer people.”

      But seriously, folks, I don’t know if it’s a Southern thing. I’m pretty well convinced that most Southerners — and folks in small-town central Pennsylvania — are nicer than New Yorkers. Maybe it’s an urban-rural thing.

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  6. David

    At 65, I am without an ear for today’s millennial postmodern highjacking. The tales, which are fewer and much less enjoyable, are void of an exhaltation of godly principles, church life, living among those who believed in our nation’s ‘ol conservative principles.

    When I turned on PHC, I looked forward to hearing about the simplest puns and jokes that reflected upon an imaginary small town filled with Christian folk and their desire to do things humorously right, or mess them up with equal humor.

    It is my feeling, they have missed the boat on this one. Even the music I cannot bear because of it’s Indi flavor and words that are simply impossible to make out, and even where I can, the stories aren’t what they used to be.

    I’m greatly missing Garrison Keillor’s voice, his command of the show, and the tales of Lake Wobegon.

    It was a sad, sad day when producers put to rest an icon, truly the best of the best story teller within my lifespan. The music he chose, too, was flavored with feelings of times past, just as the theme of the show should have been, flavored with country and traditional jazz that made the foot tap.

    I don’t know what they call the music that is played today, but it, in no way, does it satisfy as the choice creations guided by the hand of Garrison and his staff. Please, please bring him back.

    Reply
    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Absolutely.

      I’m reminded of what the opposition candidate (the REform candidate) said of the Soggy Bottom Boys: “They ain’t even old-timey!

      Being old-timey, in a particular sort of way, was what PHC was about.

      And it’s not that it harked back to some time when you and I were young. No, its nostalgia went back well before we were born. It was ageless, timeless.

      It was like the appeal of The Band — a sort of Americana that couldn’t necessarily be fixed in time or place. Which is what was wonderful about it.

      Lake Woebegone was a place that both a liberal like Keillor and someone like Sarah Palin could recognize as “real America.”

      Reply
  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    It’s been awhile since this post, and something I saw today made me think, “So how is the new Prairie Home Companion being received, more than a year into it?”

    Well, it was renewed for another season, with Thile as host.

    But you know what? It’s hard to find anyone making any sort of value judgments about it one way or the other. Which is weird, in a world full of blogs devoted to dissecting the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” at great length, as though it were War and Peace.

    I’ve tried all sorts of searches for combinations of “Prairie Home Companion,” “Chris Thile,” “Garrison Keillor,” “review,” “compare,” and so forth, and I basically find no discussion of the subject. There’s a NYT story headlined “What’s ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ Without Garrison Keillor?,” but it’s from BEFORE Thile took over. No one seems to have gone back and tried to answer that question, now that we have an actual track record to look at.

    If you Google “miss Garrison Keillor,” the first result you get is this post on this blog.

    It’s weird that no one out there has really held forth on the subject. I mean, I find one or two places where someone sort of engaged the subject, but nothing like what I expected.

    For my part, I’ve tried several more times to listen to it, and each time I do, the greater part of me is asking the part that made me try, “Is that enough? Can I stop listening now?” I haven’t heard anything yet that made me think, “Well, I’m glad I heard THAT.”

    All Things Must Pass, I suppose.

    I don’t begrudge this Thile guy having this nice, weekly gig. He has fans (from the bands he’s been in, not from anything having to do with humor or story-telling), and they enjoy him.

    But they should call the show something else. As long as it’s still billed as “Prairie Home Companion,” it’s just too disappointing…

    Reply

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