Occupy Main Street

By Lawrence Cosentino

Garrison Keillor talks the Broad Art Museum, student debt, and, oh yes, 'A Prairie Home Companion'

When Garrison Keillor takes his long-running radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” on the road, he likes to insert references to local spots, but he keeps them gentle.

“I don’t think I’m going to have a murder take place in your new art museum,” Keillor mused, referring to Michigan State University’s ultramodern Broad Art Museum. “I think maybe Guy Noir could be called in by a curator to decide whether something is hanging upside down or not.”

Keillor, in and out of hard-nosed private eye persona, brings a band of musical co-conspirators to MSU’s Wharton Center Aug. 4.

“I finished with the hard work years ago, and now I’m just doing what I enjoy doing,” he said in a telephone interview. “I recommend this as a strategy.”

Keillor, 71, claimed no special affinity for Michigan, although he did a one-person show in Saginaw in January and brought “A Prairie Home Companion” to Ann Arbor July 1 and to Interlochen July 7. His last appearance in Lansing was with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra in 2008.

“I just go where they send me,” he demurred. “I don’t have enough sense to make these decisions myself. I like to live day by day and week by week and with a surprise just around the corner.”

Universities are favorite tour stops. Midwestern land grant schools like MSU and Keillor’s alma mater, the University of Minnesota, are especially close to his heart, but he isn’t pleased with the current state of the land grant ideal, at MSU or anywhere else.

“The old alumnus is horrified at the amount of debt that our young people run up, even going to a state university,” he said. “I’m just genuinely horrified. I cannot get my mind around it.”

Keillor worked his way through school parking cars and washing dishes at Minnesota, where he says tuition was $71 a quarter (plus $10 for books) in the early 1960s. He got his start in radio reading news at the student radio station.

“Those days are gone,” he said. “A kid I know, a really talented young singer, went to Florida State University to get a degree in musical theater, and now she’s working as a waitress, and she has a debt of $150,000. When you’re 21, 22, you have this period of freedom in your life, when you’re able to make up your own mind about things, find your own way. If you have $150,000 in student debt, you’re not free whatsoever.”

To Keillor, that’s a grievous political mistake.

“My parents’ generation supported higher education to a much greater degree than mine does,” he said. “That’s a shame.”

Land grant colleges used to provide one of the democratic roads to the “common life” Keillor celebrates in his books and radio shows. “A Prairie Home Companion” is cornball stuff to some, but 35 years ago, Keillor embarked on a long-term mission to occupy Main Street U.S.A. ahead of the ideologues, bigots, Walmarts and Walt Disney dream merchants. With so many juggernauts of unreality on the loose, Lake Wobegon looks more like an oasis of reality every week.

For 35 years, “Prairie” has poured cool water on the nation’s smoldering tire fire of political polarization, growing inequality and cultural isolation, mostly by sharing jokes and recipes and finding heartfelt music for which no decent person could work up a distaste.

“It’s what I remember from growing up,” Keillor said. My father loved small talk, and now that I’m older, I see the beauty of small talk that’s really about nothing — the weather, sports. It’s birds on a wire chirping together.”

How long can Keillor keep it up? Like Scheherazade, he seems compelled to spin endless tales, each one jostling the next like dishes at a Minnesota potluck.

“I do it because I’m trying to figure out how to do it,” he explained. “No story is ever complete. Everything is a work in progress. My challenge is to try and push a story a little farther down the road each time.”

Keillor has fleshed out his fictional town in a series of novels, but he improvises his famous “news from Lake Wobegon.”

“For the broadcast on Saturdays, I feel as if I’m just sort of in sight of the story,” he said. “I can’t really see it clearly. So I’m struggling. I’m just trying to make it over the hill so I can get the lay of the land.” A tour like this, he said, lets him add and subtract elements as he goes along. “I can’t say that it’s getting better, but it’s becoming more complete, somehow,” he said.

To make the Wharton tour stop more complete, Keillor will perform with Sara Watkins of the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek.

“She wields a tremendous fiddle,” Keillor said. “I love the songs she comes up with, some of which I even get to sing a little bit on the chorus.”

That’s where the tour’s title, “Radio Romance,” comes in. Keillor, who has written a book of romantic — even erotic — sonnets, relishes the common life in many forms.

“The romance element is duets, which I love more than any other kind of music,” he said. “It’s the great cause of my twilight years — to encourage the idea of duets.”