A few minutes before airtime, a tall, shaggy-haired man ambles on stage at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, Minn. He makes small talk and explains live radio’s cardinal rule: “We don’t go back and correct things,” Garrison Keillor says with a shrug. “Once you start, where would you stop?” Right on schedule, the ON AIR sign glows red, the piano pounds out Tishomingo Blues, and A Prairie Home Companion (APHC) spills across the airwaves as it has on so many Saturday evenings since Keillor founded it in 1974.
Broadcast to four million listeners on U.S. National Public Radio and abroad, APHC is a two-hour radio variety show with skits about private eyes and cowboys. In this digital age, it’s something of a throwback, with on-stage sound effects and more acoustic music than you can shake a violin bow at.
But it’s old-fashioned in another way, too. The heart of the broadcast — the “sermon” — is the weekly News from Lake Wobegon with tales of taciturn Catholics and Lutherans in a tiny, fictional Minnesota town. With results that are both funny and profound, Keillor puts faith near the centre of his narrative. No wonder Virginia Quarterly Review critic Michael Nelson called it “Church on Saturday night.”
As with so many rural churches, APHC and its host are on the cusp of change. Now 73, Keillor will step away from the microphone this July. His replacement, 35-year-old mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, plans to rejuvenate the flock with more music and hipper guests. Without Keillor’s stories, the show will be less churchy, more secular.
Up until now, APHC has been dry, farcical, ribald, politically liberal — and definitely Christian. Keillor was raised in a conservative Plymouth Brethren household. He later attended Lutheran and Episcopal services as an adult and brings an insider’s view of church life to his art. When he begins with “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown,” events centre not only on the Chatterbox Café and the Sidetrack Tap, but two churches: Lake Wobegon Lutheran and Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.
United Church listeners may recognize the squabbles over budgets, passive-aggressive frictions between committees and the kids who drift off to become “spiritual but not religious.” Gossip probably doesn’t happen in your church, but it does in Lake Wobegon: “Whoever fixed the meatballs in the church supper?” gripes one character. “You know she did not make them herself. She bought those at a delicatessen somewhere.” Meanwhile, Lutheran pastor Liz’s carefully-crafted sermons evaporate into the ether, as the congregation shifts and looks out the window on sunny days.
It’s mostly played for laughs, but Lake Wobegon is not a Sunday school world. As Tom Allen, musical raconteur of CBC Radio 2’s Shift says, Keillor “walks through this sunny, Norman Rockwell sort of constructed Americana, yet there’s a real black darkness there
that’s never very far away.”
Beauty and darkness exist in tandem, and the listener is left to make sense of them — the way Keillor’s narrator did as a child, eavesdropping on visiting relatives as their voices drifted into his bedroom from the kitchen below. “In Lake Wobegon, we grew up with bad news. I heard it wafting up through the heat duct,” he writes in his collection of stories and poems, We Are Still Married. For the lad, it was puzzling stuff: “She tried to kill herself by dropping an electric fan in the bathtub,” says a voice from below. “I don’t know. She never got over him, that’s for sure. You want more banana bread? It’s fresh. I just baked it. Here.”
The adult Keillor is still mulling over these big questions, finding space for hope and gratitude, and extracting humour from the claustrophobia of small town life. Living in Lake Wobegon means never using a turn signal, “because everybody knows which way you’re going to turn anyway,” he says. When you seek forgiveness on Sunday, folks in surrounding pews “have a pretty good idea which sins you are thinking of — and they have an idea which ones you may be forgetting.”
Through the decades, Keillor’s voice has deepened. The cherubic-faced young writer, whose approach seemed so fresh and unusual in 1974, has become an institution in his own right. Despite the changes that come from age and wisdom, two themes have persisted.
First is the central place of community. We’re all in this together, and if we can’t help rubbing each other the wrong way, we can also salve each other’s wounds. “Who else will tell you this?” he asks in a story that takes place on Ash Wednesday. “Commercials won’t tell you this. Politicians won’t tell you this. The church tells you it at least once a year. They tell you that we are all made of the same stuff, no matter how much we prize our individuality. . . . We are all headed in the same direction. Who will tell you this truth, other than spiritual people?”
The second enduring theme is a sort of “prairie mindfulness.” Like live radio, we can’t go back, we can’t edit our errors. But we can be grateful participants in a world of astounding warmth and beauty. Because our last broadcast “comes quickly,” Keillor says, “we want to enjoy what is truly best: fresh sweet corn, good coffee, rhubarb pie, new jokes and people who, even though they know you awfully well, they still vote for acquittal.”
Thus ends another Saturday night in Lake Wobegon.
Ray Ford is a National Magazine Award-winning freelance journalist in Powassan, Ont.