Chris Thile, Garrison Keillor and Heather Masse in June, during one of Keillor’s last performances as host of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Credit Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
Here they come,” said the security guard, mopping sweat from his brow. He was tall and bald but not imposing, and he worried that the searing heat would lead to too much drinking. It was 3 p.m. on June 11, and the gates to the Ravinia outdoor theater in Highland Park, Ill., had just opened. People streamed in carrying coolers and lawn chairs, checkered blankets and wineglasses, plasticware full of crackers, melons and deviled eggs. They politely competed for swatches of grass in the shade of oak trees mounted with thank you for not smoking signs.
They wore old Cubs shirts and sun hats of all colors. A stuffed bald eagle perched atop one of the coolers. Vendors sold bottles of wine for $40. The security guard’s concerns proved well founded; the Malbec went quickly, then the Moscato. Lawn space dwindled, and with it some of the crowd’s civility. An old man struggled under the weight of two folding chairs. His wife worried aloud that he’d have a heart attack. “Keep walking!” he snapped.
They had come to see Garrison Keillor one last time. The creator and host of “A Prairie Home Companion” had for four decades gently skewered their baby-boomer sensibilities with fake ads for rhubarb pie and stories about family life that descended into jokes about plagues of rats and apocalyptic climate change. “There’s something about this kind of humor people my age can appreciate,” said Tim Balster, a gray-haired magician I met in the crowd. “It’s like a quilt.” Balster had been listening to “Prairie Home” for 33 of his 52 years. He loved nothing more than to hear the aging writer breathing deeply, his nose right next to the mike. “It draws you in,” he said, “like a moth to the flame.”
Now that was ending. Only four shows remained before Keillor would depart, relinquishing hosting duties to a 35-year-old mandolin player from California named Chris Thile, who was appearing as a musical guest for this show. As we sat in the grass, Balster noted that Keillor left the show once before, when he married a Danish woman, only to return. It was true. But this hiatus occurred during the Reagan administration, when Keillor, now 74, was still a relatively young man. Nevertheless, Balster said, “I’m holding out hope.”
An hour or so before the gates opened, I watched Thile prepare for the show in a dressing room in the Ravinia’s backstage area, then head for the stage entrance, where he crossed paths unexpectedly with Keillor. Keillor is 6-foot-3, a looming and still presence; Thile is fence-post thin with a pronounced jawline and unruly dirty-blond hair. He projects a focused, constant energy, and today his boyishness was amplified by a retainer in his mouth, a corrective measure to address problems left over from a childhood without dental insurance. Thile was already dressed for the performance in a collared shirt; Keillor, who is known for rewriting scripts until the last possible minute, wore a T-shirt.
“How would I know?” Keillor said, without making eye contact.
Thile retreated to his dressing room to warm up on his mandolin, a rare 1924 Gibson built by the renowned luthier Lloyd Loar. He played arpeggios, his long fingers hopping around the fretboard, and sang in a clear falsetto: “Da da da da.” Thile’s voice is a staccato tenor. A critic once memorably wrote that Keillor’s baritone sounded “precision-engineered to narrate a documentary about glaciers”; Thile would be more suited to announcing a pickup football game played by peregrine falcons. He put on a tie: “There’s that.” But he looked a little nervous.
Internally, executives at American Public Media, the nonprofit that produces and distributes “A Prairie Home Companion,” liken Thile’s ascent to Jimmy Fallon’s taking Jay Leno’s seat. The comparison sells short the jarring nature of the shift. Leno didn’t conceive of “The Tonight Show” or write most of the jokes himself, as is the case with Keillor and “Prairie Home.” More peculiar still, Thile is not a writer-raconteur in the mode of Keillor, but a musician, and one who prefers technical, challenging terrain.
The transition brings with it more than one existential question — whether “A Prairie Home Companion” can possibly go on without Garrison Keillor’s voice, and whether there’s even a place for such a show in modern America. Thile’s motivations also seem curious. He spent this summer touring Australia and Japan and curating a sold-out series of concerts at Washington’s Kennedy Center. He has a choir. Why preach to Keillor’s?
After the Ravinia performance, in a greeting tent full of rhubarb pie, an old man approached Thile and asked about his plans. “A lot of things will stay the same,” Thile told him. “But a lot of things will change.” The man smiled politely.
In 1974, Garrison Keillor — then a freelance writer and morning-show host for Minnesota Public Radio — traveled to Nashville for The New Yorker to report on the original live-music variety show, the Grand Ole Opry. His assignment was to write about the Opry’s transition from the Ryman Auditorium to a slick new venue. “Ryman should’ve been torn down long ago,” the country star Roy Acuff told Keillor. Keillor disagreed. His article was an unapologetically nostalgic celebration of the old venue, hosts and performers. Rather than attend the grand opening of the new Opryland, he bought a portable radio at a pawnshop and listened from his hotel room.
Upon returning to St. Paul, Keillor hatched plans for his own live radio show, and he started “A Prairie Home Companion” just months later. For its earliest years, it was primarily a music-variety program featuring regional artists and interstitial spoken-word bits. Keillor wrote mock commercials for fake products like “expeditious” Powdermilk Biscuits, made by Norwegian bachelor farmers, and “Beebopareebop rhubarb pie,” which was billed as resuscitative. There were also dispatches from Lake Wobegon, a fictitious Minnesota town of Scandinavians where all the children were “above average.” These eventually evolved into a monologue that became the show’s famous centerpiece. “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” he’d start, before delving into self-deprecating narratives that might contain a life lesson on, say, the importance of losing at softball. The spoken-word elements of the show became the main draw by the mid-’80s, and they appealed to enough people that in 1985 Time magazine put Keillor on its cover.