Garrison Keillor sees transition out of 'A Prairie Home Companion'
LENOX — Shortly before Garrison Keillor began rehearsing his 16th annual live broadcast from Tanglewood on Friday, he disclosed details of a plan for easing into retirement from "A Prairie Home Companion."
Keillor, public radio's most celebrated entertainer, has dropped hints before about leaving the unique variety show he created 41 years ago, but he's now focused on transitioning out of his role as host in a year or two at the most.
In an e-mail interview with The Eagle on Thursday night as he flew from Minneapolis-St. Paul to New York City, Keillor, 72, confirmed that during the 2015-16 season, he'll turn over hosting duties to musician Chris Thile for two weeks, and will co-host with Thile for several additional Saturday night shows.
Thile, 34, a noted mandolin player and singer for the progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek (he is currently touring with the band Punch Brothers), made his first "Prairie" appearance when he was 15. Last February, for the first time, he guest-hosted for two weeks, a trial run that greatly pleased Keillor.
"Chris is my man," said Keillor, "and I'm eager to stay home and read books. But of course, I'll do whatever needs to be done to assure an easy transition — sing, dance, do 'Guy Noir,' talk about my home town, whatever is required."
The 2016-17 season is still being planned, he added. but by then, Keillor expects to be a guest but not the host.
He also acknowledged that by then, "Prairie" will have completed its evolution into primarily a music-intensive variety show, a scenario he first outlined in 2009 when he began talking about retirement. In 2011, he told the AARP Bulletin that he would be done by 2013, but later thought the better of it and decided to stay while searching for a successor.
At Tanglewood on Saturday evening, Keillor's musical guests will include Texan Sarah Jarosz, a country-folk singer-songwriter, Rachel Manke, a ukelele artist and singer from Boston, bluegrass performer Peter Rowan, as well as singer Sara Bareilles and Broadway performer Nadia DiGiallonardo.
"There's no place like Tanglewood," Keillor enthused, "the ghosts of Hawthorne and Leonard Bernstein, the enormous Shed and the lawn beyond, and the loyal listeners who come."
"Prairie" fans here are rewarded not only by seeing the live broadcast but also by an extended singalong with Keillor after the "on-air" sign goes off just before 8 p.m.
"Every year, they strive to prolong the encore beyond the all-time record, which I believe is 75 minutes," Keillor pointed out. "We stand out on stage and sing, and they sing with us and the cows come home and nobody leaves. This happens nowhere else in America."
Keillor enjoys his annual working sojourn in the Berkshires — "I get to see Stockbridge and the Rockwell Museum and I usually visit my friends [writer-humorist] Roy Blount and [painter] Joan Griswold, and then I get to take the train down to the city. A big weekend for me."
Keillor and his wife, violinist Jenny Lind Nilsson, maintain an apartment in Manhattan and he has indicated that they might move there in several years.
Even though he's winding down his role on the radio broadcast, which attracts some four million weekly listeners on more than 600 stations, Keillor's emphasis on hard work, constant writing and multi-tasking continues apace.
He has just finished an original screenplay set in his fictional hometown on the prairie, Lake Wobegon, which is now in the hands of a producer. He's aiming to complete a musical by next spring and his next novel "is trudging along, an unlikely novel like nothing I've done before."
Keillor said he's also "cranking up a skinny memoir that is mostly about working." And this summer, his annual series of road shows while the broadcast is in repeats is the most extensive yet. The "America the Beautiful" tour includes 30 cities in 36 days, beginning July 26.
There's even some vacation time squeezed in. "At the end of the season," Keillor said, "I get to take my grandsons, 15 and 13, to London, which is going to be the highlight of my life. We'll go up to Scotland, see some plays, look at castles and try to figure out cricket."
Inevitably during each broadcast, Keillor's "The News from Lake Wobegon" draws the biggest cheers from the audience, as he appears to deliver his monologue as an unscripted stream-of-consciousness.
"I'm no good at memorization," he said, "but if I write up some notes the night before, I can usually remember what they were about and go from there. It's improv from a solid outline. No big trick. Anyone can do it."
"People want to be spoken to," he continued. "Ministers who read their sermons inevitably lose the audience in the first two minutes. So sad, so unnecessary."
Keillor avoids music listening for pleasure during his work week: "I like to keep a fresh ear for Friday rehearsal. That's the music I want to hear."
If you go ...
What: "A Prairie Home Companion" with Garrison Keillor, 16th annual public radio broadcast from Tanglewood
Where: The Shed, Tanglewood, 197 West Street (Route 183), Lenox.
When: 5:45 p.m. Saturday
Guests: Musicians Sarah Jarosz, Rachel Manke, Peter Rowan, Sara Bareilles and Nadia DiGiallonardo.
Tickets: $24-$57 at the box office or www.tanglewood.org
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