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Garrison Keillor may have left 'A Prairie Home Companion,' but he's still telling stories

Keepin' in touch

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Garrison Keillor may not be a household name, but he owns a household voice: An airy, baritone that accompanied the broadcast of one of NPR’s most popular shows, "A Prairie Home Companion," for over 40 years. The show still goes on, every Saturday night at 6 p.m., but Keillor retired this past summer to pursue other projects. One of which, a national solo tour, begins in Charleston at the Gaillard Center this Thurs. Jan. 5 at 7:30 p.m.

At Keillor’s Gaillard performance, audience members will get to witness one of America’s most acclaimed storytellers. He’s been called, “the gentle giant of American satirists,” by The Guardian. He’ll regale attendees with tales of lighthearted nostalgia and humor, unabashedly taking embarrassing trips down memory lane. “I’m 74,” says Keillor, “old enough to look back at dumb things I did that turned out OK.”

Keillor’s deep love of poetry — and his extensive mental library from which to pull — will surely be on display. After all, it’s a family tradition. “My dad’s family loved [poetry],” he says, “so I get to recite ‘Annabel Lee’ and some sonnets and a few tasteless limericks. And of course there’s the News from Lake Wobegon.”

Ah, yes, the News from Lake Wobegon. Let us offer some background on this portion of his show.

Gary Edward Keillor, a self-proclaimed loner, raised in Anoka, Minn., took to writing as a child, adopting the pen name “Garrison” at age 13. He went on to graduate from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in English.

His youth spent in the spaces of rural Minnesota, spurred Keillor to invent the small, quiet town of Lake Wobegon in his fiction writing. He has since written a myriad of published works set in the fake Minnesota town and every week on "A Prairie Home Companion," Keillor would give a monologue revealing the goings-on and the life lessons learned by the inhabitants of his fictional city entitled, the News from Lake Wobegon.

And there are still more tales to tell, even though he’s left "A Prairie Home Companion" in his rearview.

Keillor started the old-timey variety show back in 1974. “[It] started out as a social club of musicians I knew and ... it grew beyond that,” he says. Though the show took a two-year hiatus in the late '80s, it has been going strong ever since, with its mix of comedic sketches, storytelling, and live music.

Keillor considered retiring several times, but could never truly leave the show behind. “What kept me doing the show was the idea that I could do it better,” he says. “Which may be an illusion that is suffered by old writers, old quarterbacks, old politicians — you take a rest and get ginned up with delusions of grandeur.”

Delusions or not, Keillor has nothing but love for the program, noting it became his entire social life. “This dawned on me about 20 years ago,” he says. “I was hiring people to become my friends. Embarrassing but true. Some people hire shrinks, I hired bass players.”

Finally, this past summer, Keillor retired for good. Why? Well, for one reason, he happened to catch a video of himself performing. “[I] was alarmed at what a lumbering galoot I was on stage,” says Keillor. “It was grim. A few people were asking, ‘How much longer are you going to be doing this?’ I didn’t want to wait for there to be hundreds.”

That doesn’t mean he’s left the airwaves. Keillor can still be heard every weekday morning on NPR’s "The Writer’s Almanac," an insightful five-minute program, broadcast locally at 11 a.m., where Keillor mentions a select few notable people born on that day, offers anecdotes about them, and always finishes the show with a poem. “It was a beautiful original idea,” he says, “a five-minute radio show, at a time when public radio was all about hour-long shows. It’s the only regular appearance of poetry on the radio. So it’s my obligation as an English major.”

Keillor’s list of accomplishments in the English field is both eclectic and staggering. He’s written novels, short story collections, poetry anthologies, and his work has been featured in (to name a few) The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and National Geographic. He still writes a weekly column for The Washington Post.

Now as Keillor approaches his golden years, we wouldn’t say he’s settled into old age as much as he’s embraced it with gusto. Not only is he beginning an extensive North American tour, he recently finished a Lake Wobegon screenplay. He’s also working on a memoir as well as another novel, and when this tour is over, he goes to Norway before tackling a 30-day bus tour to take him through the summer months.

A fella working that hard, one can only hope he takes his own advice, his signoff on The Writer’s Almanac: Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.


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