Aw c’mon, change is good. Go ahead and fire up this first episode of the new era of A Prairie Home Companion. Chris Thile debuted as host a couple of weeks ago, taking the place of the show’s founder, Garrison Keillor, after a 42-year run.
At about minute 40 (the video clip up top there), Thile and his band play an Irish medley in the most extravagant way. It’s the thing Chris Thile does best, and it’s why it’s good to know that he’ll be inhabiting Saturdays for the foreseeable future.
If you’re a fan of Garrison Keillor, this first episode of A Prairie Home Companion with a new host feels like an amputation. Many elements of Keillor’s show remain—the introductory song, Powdermilk Biscuits, rhubarb pie. But it’s like some fever dream where the sonorous drone of Keillor has been replaced by the elfish voice of Thile. I can’t even really process it, it’s so odd.
But it’s OK. Really. You could live the rest of your life replaying old episodes of this show, floating on the soothing sameness of it, week to week. For 42 years, Keillor presided over a show that had almost no freshness to it. It was church. The comfort of it all, the solace. He was deeply subversive at times, deliciously so, but the familiar sketches sounded the same to me, week to week.
Chris Thile is not really into comfort and solace. He’s as twitchy as a squirrel, can’t sit still for a minute. Early on, Thile states the obvious truth that Garrison Keillor cannot be replaced. As I think about the strategy Keillor has taken, by inviting his polar opposite to host this hidebound show, I think it’s pretty much the only route he could have taken. Keillor is a terrible singer, but a brilliant storyteller. Thile is a novice storyteller, but a MacArthur-genius-grant musician. You flip the talents of the host, and the show becomes new.
For one thing, any musician worth a damn is a friend of Chris Thile, so the prospect of visits by his musical friends is pretty exciting.
Minute 50 is when Jack White shows up.
It All Circles Around
In 1994, I attended A Prairie Home Companion at the newly restored Ryman Auditorium, a former tabernacle in downtown Nashville that had narrowly avoided the wrecking ball. It was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the long-running radio show that Garrison Keillor used as his model for A Prairie Home Companion. That night, there was a feeling in the air of rescue, and revival, and restoration of a building that had been in jeopardy of being bulldozed.
Now, more than 20 years later, the Ryman is the hottest venue in the country. Nashville will pile onto Ticketmaster to grab seats for whoever is coming through, and any concert in that place has a mist of specialness over it. The players all love the intimacy of a room where the best seats are in the balcony. In February, Chris Thile, one of the most inventive musicians of our time, will be the host when A Prairie Home Companion comes to town. I imagine there will be a vibe of rescue, and revival, and restoration. Can’t wait.