“Be well,” he always says, “do good work, and keep in touch.” Part charge, part blessing, any fan of author, humorist, and radio personality Garrison Keillor is familiar with the Minnesota native’s trademark sign-off. An estimated four million listeners tune in to his weekly live variety show, A Prairie Home Companion, on 450 radio stations every week and on September 21, 996 locals will be able to sit down with Keillor as he brings his one man show to Redding’s Cascade Theatre.
The murmuring man with the red shoes and the sibilant whistle in his speech is a staple of public radio, and Keillor’s particular position captures an elemental experience: storytelling. In addition to his signature role as host of A Prairie Home Companion, Keillor is perhaps best known for his published and extemporaneous accounts of life in the fictional town of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota. In Lake Woebegon, Keillor explains, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” The mishaps of Lake Woebegon’s residents are rarely dangerous or scandalous, but are instead the plights of floundering decorum, meandering intentions, and the simple, occasional discordance of personalities, though all this ordinary human tumult is made extraordinary by its telling. Keillor is a keen observer of seemingly unremarkable things and appears to relish reflecting and refracting them back to his listeners with good-natured wit.
There’s a fundamental, undeniable difference between absorbing a story on one’s own and being the captive audience of someone speaking a tale into the ether. Being told a story, no matter how old you are or how austere you think you are, recalls formative hours spent on cozy laps as a familiar voice enlivened the adventures of Peter Rabbit and later, Harriet the spy and Frodo Baggins. The combination of a custom so essentially human that it precedes written language with a medium searching for its place among modern entertainment is irresistible. That surreal intersection is unique to the world of public radio and Keillor is its most recognizable voice. His stories have the ability to make listeners nostalgic for places they’ve never been to and people they’ve never met, which, by way of the reminiscence of that old standby- the radio- offers a certain serenity even at its liveliest moments.
It’s rare to encounter anything that makes us stop in our tracks anymore. The world is more accessible than ever before, in ways that ensure if we miss the last five minutes of something, we can always Google it later, press record on the DVR, or download it to our phone. Radio is a last vestige of ‘instant’ entertainment and each of us has, at various times, sat in our car in the parking lot or driveway for long moments, attempting to catch the end of a moving song, riveting interview or amusing story. For many, Keillor establishes ‘appointment radio’ in a way that few other airwave contributors have been able to accomplish, historically and especially in recent years. His singularity also allows for serendipitous moments of finding unexpected union with another person under Keillor’s umbrella: anyone can stand around the water cooler discussing the latest prime time medical drama, but finding another rabid public radio fan who can sing the powder milk biscuit jingle or execute a sly Guy Noir reference carries an element of delightful distinction. Keillor’s appeal is more significant than a simple victory in a popularity contest: time spent in his company irrefutably bestows listeners with an appreciation for craft, story, wit and the deft handling of the English language. Broaden that effect to the public radio medium as a whole and you take advantage of a bounty of information and perspectives on anything from science to the silver screen.
Attendees of Keillor’s September 21st performance may also learn a thing or two about their own town, as the genial bard is known for researching his host cities and extolling their oddities and charms as he similarly does the many facets of his dear Lake Woebegon. Whether he’ll use the Cascade stage to report any of the news from the imaginary hamlet is uncertain, but ticket sales don’t appear to be hampered by the show’s vague description; when Keillor comes to town, you put on your best red shoes, pull up a comfortable chair and listen to the story.