‘Prairie Home Companion’ Refreshed with Thile


Change or consistency? Could be the great human dilemma if you think about it. It has certainly been the big question over more than a year regarding the old war horse of public radio shows, A Prairie Home Companion.

After 44 years in the show’s saddle, creator Garrison Keillor stepped down as host last year; he continues as the show’s producer. He was replaced by Chris Thile, best known as a mandolinist, singer and songwriter with the neo-bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, and a frequent PHC guest since his teens.

To me, Prairie Home Companion had grown rather long in the tooth, and for some time. Sure, it still had that reassuring familiarity and warmth of its fictitious small town of Lake Woebegon, like a wood fire in the hearth on a chilly day. The show’s cornfed and slightly cornpone humor reminded of when America was a simpler and more neighborly place and how regionalism – in this case the Northern American Plains – was once an essential element of our nation.

The soothing tones and relaxed delivery of Keillor’s voice conveyed all that and more. As a New York Times Magazine article on the passing of the Home Companion torch noted, “the show is a sort of comfort food for the overeducated.” It summoned up a heartwarming and reassuring national past that wafted about in the periphery of the collective baby boomer memory.

We boomers have also grown long in the teeth. PHC had even held its own funeral with Robert Altman’s 2006 film (also the iconic director’s last movie).

And what I’d found as I’d punch into it as I scanned the radio dial for at least the past 10 to 15 years is that what would once elicit the feeling that I’d like to stick around for some smiles and delightful music started to evoke the sensation of a barely-stifled yawn. The show still had its moments. But it had largely become stale to my ears.

Since Thile replaced Keillor, the equation has changed. When I punch onto PHC, the temptation is to stick around.

Often the allure is a stunning bit of music. Since Thile took over as host, the show’s focus has become more musical. His stunning talent, imaginative progressivism and genre defying approach make the show an utter delight for those of us who value roots music but love to hear it break free of hidebound conventions. His time on the festival and concert circuits have given him a wide network of talents to showcase and collaborate with. The show’s music bursts with fun, adventure and appealing quality.

As a host, Thile is far different from Keillor. His voice has a boyish enthusiasm and “oh gosh” charm. He’s slotting comfortably into the skits and radio plays. And the kinds of guests the show is featuring has broadened.

As Keillor notes, “He takes big chances. He can be a chameleon, he can swim in every event, and for all his brilliance, nobody sounds better singing old American songs than he. Nobody.”

The show now brims with a youthfulness it sorely needed. Sure, some longtime fans may miss the familiar and tune out the show. But to my tastes Prairie Home Companion now sounds dynamic and contemporary without forsaking its soul. It will hopefully carry the show forward into a future as notable as its past.

Populist Picks

TV Documentary: Blackout – I lived through the July 1977 power failure that left 13 million people and most all of New York City without power for nearly 24 hours. This recounting of that event captures it well, even if both the dangers and more peaceful aspects of what I experienced differ from how it portrays the chaos when the lights went out.

Book: Rod: The Autobiography by Rod Stewart – Once (long ago) my favorite rock singer, Stewart delivers a surprisingly well-written (ghostwritten?) book rich with wit, style and self-effacing humor (though one wonders if that’s sincere). Fans of British rock will enjoy his account of his early years. Like the quality and artistry of his music, which declined as his fame increased, the book feels a bit less real the more successful he became. But it’s ultimately a breezy and engaging read about a singer who became a pop icon.

TV Documentary: American Comandante – William Morgan was an American who joined the Cuban Revolution in 1957 and was executed and largely written out of history by Fidel Castro in his post-revolutionary purge. Morgan’s dodgy youth prior to becoming a Cuban rebel and bold time as one make for a fascinating tale in this American Experience episode.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@prismnet.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2017


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