Turn The Radio On

05 gk w mike cLinda Burton posting from Lansing, Michigan – First he had us stand and sing the Star Spangled Banner. There was no fanfare, no “Here’s…….Johnny!” introduction, no curtain raised. Garrison Keillor simply walked out on the stage and asked us to stand and sing. At the end of two hours, he asked us to stand and sing again; this time it was Amazing Grace; and we did it, respectfully and, I’d say, rather enthusiastically. “What is such a tactic supposed to do for the show?” I was thinking, as I stood between two guys whose baritone voices completely drowned me out. I guess it served two purposes; a method of getting audience involvement so we’d stop chatting with each other and pay attention to the show in the beginning; a seventh-inning stretch after we’d sat so long. Or maybe he’s just patriotic. He is that; patriotic, I mean; and irreverent too. Somehow he picks out exactly how 05 radiowe feel about something even when we think we have gracefully covered it up. And he tells on us. Faithful listeners of Prairie Home Companion know just what I mean. Pastor Liz. The Lutherans. Those folks who endure a Minnesota winter. Garrison Keillor knows about contentment, and he knows about longing; he gives the two a humorous twist; that’s the way to survive. He ended the show with a singy-song burst of advice for happy living – “If you want something to get done…do it…if you don’t want to do it, don’t worry a-bout it…tell 05 rr tour signyour kids not to wear their baseball cap back-wards and not to use four-letter words on their res-u-me….” If you haven’t figured it out, I was in the audience for Garrison Keillor’s Radio Romance Summer Tour. I was front row balcony in Lansing’s Wharton Center, and I was loving it.

05 whartonWharton Center for the Performing Arts is on the Michigan State University campus (which is actually in East Lansing, not to be confused with adjoining Lansing); it’s been open since 1982 and claims to have “the largest programming schedule of any independent performing arts center affiliated with a university in the country.” They have four stages and I wasn’t sure which theater I was in; the place was enormous and crowds were thick in the hallways; the elevators and restrooms were full; lots of wheelchairs and walkers preceded me. Most of the crowd seemed to be as old as me and older; the “Keillor generation” I laughed to myself.

05 gk w mikeHe had talked about his upcoming birthday on a morning radio interview – he’ll be 71 on August 7. And he gets back home that day, his 26-city coast-to-coast tour concluded. “Will there be a birthday party?” the interviewer had asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I was just told to be home by 3.” The interviewer had also asked why he called the tour Radio Romance and his answer was simple: “Radio is the most intimate medium there is. You can be right there in the truck driver’s cab, or in somebody’s kitchen while they’re frying eggs for breakfast; you can be with the bartender at 3 AM as he’s washing that last glass.” He talked about duets too, his favorite thing to do, sharing a song with someone else, “voices blending, in harmony.” Yes, Keillor is about 05 gk and fred spewingconnecting with people, or at least, our sometimes bumbling efforts to do so.

He sang duets with Sara Watkins throughout the show; he clowned with Fred Newman, master of sound effects; he sat on his stool and watched as others were showcased – dueling fiddles between Sara and Richard Keihn; Fred’s incredible combination singing-sound effects performance (how does he do it?).  And Keillor talked to 03 shoe bandus, in his personal, Lake Wobegon style. I was so far away I couldn’t really see his face; I focused on the red tie, red shoes, and red socks. Still, I felt like he was talking just to me; rambling from Point A to Point G and then back around 05 gk downto Point D, the way my Dad used to tell stories, never quite getting to the end. Keillor did a lot more singing and story-telling after he had us sing Amazing Grace, and our proper 15-minute intermission; the show began at 7 PM on the dot, and didn’t end till 10. Keillor never referred to any notes; he had no script in hand; the show just seemed to flow.

Joanne and Garland sat to my left; they did some story-telling too, as we had time to talk. Both in their 70’s, “We’re just now a couple,” Joanne explained. They were high-school classmates; Garland and Joanne’s husband-to-be were best friends. “Garland was my husband’s best man in our wedding,” Joanne said. And Garland came to their 50th Anniversary celebration. Garland’s wife had died by then; Joanne’s husband died a few years later. They started going out to dinner “as friends” last year, and now – “Now we’re a couple,” said Garland, giving Joanne’s hand a squeeze. Keillor could make a good story out of that; I imagined the details he’d add, as the years collected, the children were born, and left home, the spouses became ill, and then, an unexpected reconnect.

05 hangingsMy knees were stiff when I stood to applaud at the end of the show; Keillor took one bow and the house lights went up. It was a three-elevator wait to get to the first floor; the crowds and walkers and wheelchairs took their time inching down the long hallway towards the parking garage. Nobody seemed antsy to get out; the good mood lingered and conversations continued; the Keillor spell followed me home in Lansing’s summer evening air. Whenever I wanted to hear more, I knew I could just turn the radio on.

Wharton Center, East Lansing, Michigan http://www.whartoncenter.com/

A Prairie Home Companion http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/programs/

Radio Romance Tour http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/tickets/2013/radio-romance/

About the tour:

A Prairie Home Companion’s Radio Romance Tour 2013 hit the road coast-to-coast this summer, starring host and writer Garrison Keillor, singer Aoife O’Donovan, singer and fiddler Sara Watkins, comedian Fred Newman, and Rich Dworsky and The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band with guitarist Pat Donohue and violinist/mandolinist Richard Kriehn, two hours of duet singing, absurd improv with sound effects, Guy Noir Private Eye, poetry, outright foolishness, and the News from Lake Wobegon.

Bios for the Tour

Garrison Keillor was born in 1942 in Anoka, Minnesota, and began his radio career as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. He went to work for Minnesota Public Radio in 1969, and on July 6, 1974, he hosted the first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. Today, some 4 million listeners on more than 600 public radio stations tune in to the show each week. His many books include Lake Wobegon Days, The Book of Guys, and Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny (Viking). He is the host of the daily program The Writer’s Almanac and the editor of several anthologies of poetry, most recently, Good Poems: American Places (Viking). In 2006, Keillor played himself in the movie adaptation of his show, a film directed by Robert Altman. In 2007, he opened an independent bookstore, Common Good Books, in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

05 saraSara Watkins was a mainstay of the Grammy-Award-winning bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, an accomplished fiddler and singer/songwriter who, with her albums Sara Watkins and Sun Midnight Sun, has established her identity as a solo artist.

03 newmanFred Newman is a storyteller, sound-effects artist, actor, writer, musician, and author of the best-selling MouthSounds.

The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band is an all-purpose roots quintet covering blues, jugband, primitive jazz, good timey, R&B, swing, and hillbilly, with occasional ventures into classical, romantic, French cafe, music hall, surfer, spa, and Scandihoovian. 05 bandThe band is: Richard Dworsky (leader, keyboards), Pat Donohue (guitar), Gary Raynor (bass), Peter Johnson (percussion), and Richard Kriehn (fiddle, mandolin).