20 Questions With Garrison Keillor

Noted Radio Host and Author Talks About Prairie Home Film and More

From time to time, Garrison Keillor takes the long-running radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, and the mythical town of Lake Wobegon on the road from its home base of St. Paul, Minn. In his latest venture, however, the radio host and author has taken the show to the big screen in a film version directed by the legendary Robert Altman, whose credits include MASH, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park and Nashville, among many others.

In the film version of A Prairie Home Companion, Altman placed Keillor and other regulars from the radio show into a truly remarkable cast that includes Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin.

When CMT.com readers recently asked the questions, Keillor responded with his thoughts on a wide variety of topics, including his co-stars in the film, satellite radio, tomatoes and his friendship with the late Chet Atkins.

1. When did you first realize your voice could captivate an audience?

I never found that to be true, but I did find that if you want to get people’s attention, you speak more softly.

2. I’ve heard that the Grand Ole Opry inspired you to create A Prairie Home Companion. Did you grow up listening to the Opry, and what was it about the Opry that captured your imagination?

What I loved about the Opry, for one thing, is that we could only get the signal in the winter. My brother and I strung a wire antenna out our bedroom window to a maple tree and were able to pick up WSM in Nashville from about late November through April or so. [There were] the vagaries of AM transmission. My brother was keenly interested in electronics and in distant radio signals and could pull in Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh and Little Rock, in addition to Nashville. The Opry sounded like such a jolly show, and you could hear people laughing and chatting off-mike, and then there was that big whoop and yee-haw when Cousin Minnie Pearl came on. She was a beauty. It was so wonderful when she came up to St. Paul to perform on our show, and afterward she and her husband sat on my front porch and told stories about Hank Williams and the old days.

3. When you’re in Lake Wobegon, what’s your ideal day: ice fishing on the lake or sitting sit by a warm cabin fireplace listening to an Aaron Copland symphony with Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin?

I’m a reader more than a fisherman or a listener. So my ideal day would be one that lets me read some book I’m hot to read. Books come and go, and most of them don’t quite grab you, but then one does and you want to crawl into it and spend the day. That’s a great day.

4. Did you have specific actors and actresses in mind for the new film? Were you surprised that so many major stars wanted to be a part of the production?

Casting was Mr. Altman’s job and his particular passion. He’s a movie guy, and he can happily spend an entire day mulling over a handful of actors and deciding which one should be the footman to the duke. The reason so many big stars wanted to do the picture was the chance to work with Mr. Altman, who is a legend in the film world and who is 81.

5. How does acting for a feature film differ from hosting a live radio show each week? Which form of entertainment is most challenging?

An actor has to get into the moment instantly. There isn’t much tolerance for slackness. There’s an intensity in some actors that just sweeps everything along, even if the material is poor. Meryl Streep has that. When she’s onscreen, you can’t take your eyes off her. She does things with her eyes that make the audience lean forward and forget to breathe. Hosting a live show is a lot of fun and doesn’t take much intensity at all. You try to hit a pace and not drag, and you have to keep your eye on the clock, but anybody could do it. That’s why I don’t dare take a sabbatical. Somebody else would do it, and I’d become a former broadcaster.

6. I’ve raised my daughter on your Saturday night shows. Such joy you have given us. Now with the movie out, my daughter is introducing all the kids in her marching band to A Prairie Home Companion. My question is this: Do you see a lot of second and third generation fans now?

After the show, I like to hang out with people in the audience, and I hear a lot of youngish people say, “I was brought up listening to you.” Some of them seem happier about that, others faintly resentful. I think that when I run into old people who say, “I was brought up listening to you, and now my grandchildren do,” then it’s time for me to close up shop.

7. I’m a fan from Atlanta and am so sorry that the audience was so rude last year when you brought the radio show to Chastain Park. We’ve seen many talented artists — from Randy Newman and Lyle Lovett to Rickie Lee Jones and Dan Fogelberg — leave the stage in frustration at this elitist outdoor country club of a concert venue. I hope this hasn’t soured you on Atlanta, where you are dearly loved. Would you consider returning to the regal and more appropriate Fox Theatre in the future? There you would get the listening ears and warm laughter you so richly deserve!

I remember the Fox well, and it’s a fine venue, but I was recently in Columbus, Ga., and really came to love that town in short order. Carson McCullers grew up there, and her childhood home is preserved. There’s an old opera house there. And there’s a fabulous new auditorium that is as fine as any I’ve ever played in. I stayed in a B&B that I loved in a shotgun cottage on a quiet street, and there was a sweet little cafĂ© down on the corner where you got pancakes in the morning. The people I met in Columbus were so comfortable. I felt at home there right away. It wasn’t “star treatment” or anything like that. It was pure wholehearted Southern hospitality. I did my one-man show and afterward was invited to a newspaper guy’s house and sat around on the porch talking with his wife and her parents and her sister and the sister’s daughter and a couple of historians, and it was the sort of evening you wish could last forever. For the rest of my life, I prefer to be in the company of people like those and not in the company of rich drunks.

8. My family listens to A Prairie Home Companion on Sunday drives. How did you come up with the program’s name?

It’s named for a lovely old cemetery in Moorhead, Minn., that was founded by Norwegian immigrants in the 1880s, the Prairie Home cemetery. Radio shows like ours were good and dead by the time we started PHC in 1974, and it seemed like a cool idea to name it for a cemetery. We added the “Companion” later. I forget why. I guess it just sounded friendly.

9. I loved the ketchup commercial I heard on the CD of the film soundtrack. Other than the fact that they must come from Minnesota, what are the characteristics of a perfect tomato?

A tomato is supposed to taste like a tomato, which eliminates 98 percent of the ones in stores, which are bred for shelf life and durability, not taste. When you hold a tomato and you breathe the stem, you should get a good keen whiff of tomato. They call real tomatoes “heirloom” tomatoes to distinguish them from the Styrofoam kind, but they’re pretty rare. And so the younger generation is forgetting what a tomato tastes like, and in another 20 years, you’ll be able to sell them kumquats labeled “tomato” and this beloved staple will be gone forever.

10. What did your friends say when you told them you were going to do a film with Lindsay Lohan? What was she like to work with?

My friends are too old to know about Lindsay Lohan, but the grandchildren of my friends were mightily impressed. My nephew’s three girls — Annika, Malina and Emma — were utterly thrilled. They came all the way to St. Paul for the premiere so they could see Lindsay at close hand. Lindsay is a pro to work with. She is funny and sweet on the set, she has her lines, she is willing to stand in the background for shots and she puts her lines out where the audience can get them. And she can cry on cue.

11. Were there any cast members who really impressed you with their singing talent and knowledge of old-time music?

Meryl Streep knows everything. At least she made me think she does. She’s a fearless singer. She did the show at the Hollywood Bowl with us and learned “All Alone” by Irving Berlin in one rehearsal and went out and sang it in front of 14,000 people.

12. Will you ever retire from A Prairie Home Companion? Do you think the show will continue after you’re gone?

Sure, I will, and I hope it will continue without me. It’s a good show and it’s a great venue for acoustic music and for younger performers and the crew is young and extremely capable, so it should go on and on.

13. You were close friends with Chet Atkins. What was the funniest thing you ever heard him say?

Chet was a funny writer and he wrote letters that just killed me. He had a satiric side to him that couldn’t come out in his music. He made fun of stuffed shirts and hypocrites and hadn’t much time for blowhards or preachers. He loved Mark Twain, and he was a fine storyteller, though he never would tell one on the show because all his best stories were a little ribald or irreverent. I played golf with him and Archie Campbell once, and the two of them made each other laugh for 18 holes. That was the purpose of golf, as far as they were concerned. They both liked to improve their lie, which they called “walking the dog.” I thought it was awfully funny when Chet told me once, backstage, as we were going out to take a bow at the end of a show, “Don’t take my hand. It looks funny.” So naturally, when we got out there, I always made a gesture toward him as if I were going to, and he watched me pretty carefully and kept his distance.

14. What’s your opinion of satellite radio?

I drove around for a couple of days in a rental car with XM in it, and the classical channels were pretty terrific, but I don’t listen to that much music. I’ve come to love silence more and more. And live performance. On a long car trip, I’d rather take along seven or eight CDs than sit and fiddle with the radio. The deregulation of radio and the subsequent conglomeratization killed off most of those little local AM stations that I used to love, so I don’t bother listening. They all sound pretty much the same now.

15. What would you do if you could program a full-time radio station?

I’d have DJs sit and play music they love, music of whatever kind. Those little alternative rock stations you find at colleges are great for that, and community radio, and sometimes you’ll find a country station where the DJ is giving you the classics, the Conway/Loretta duets and the Lefty Frizzell and George Strait and Merle Haggard and Waylon and Willie.

16. How long does it usually take you to write a segment of “The News from Lake Wobegon”? How much of it is improvisation once you’re on the air?

I don’t think about the news until Saturday morning, and then I write up a few pages of notes in a hurry and then put it aside. The monologue you hear is a man trying to remember what he wrote down a few hours before. Sometimes, while he’s trying to remember it, he thinks of something better.

17. What profession (other than the one you’ve created for yourself) would you care to try?

I’ve tried teaching and was too busy with other things to do it well but found it exciting — the way it pushes you to your ultimate competence and beyond. I taught a course on writing, which I’ve sort of been doing since I was the age of my students, but to talk about it to them in some helpful and coherent way and not blather is work that demands everything of a person. You look at the faces of students, and your faith in humanity is refreshed. You just want to be worthy of them.

18. Who was your high school speech teacher?

I had a terrific speech teacher in high school, LaVona Person, and the best speech I gave for her was a couple years ago at her funeral. There were several good speeches at that funeral.

19. What has been your most embarrassing moment onstage?

It’s sort of embarrassing to be on stage under any circumstances, but you try to get over that since the audience is there and they’ve paid money to be there and your job is to entertain them. But sometimes you try too hard. My most embarrassing moment has been when I realized that I had been onstage talking for three hours straight. The audience was still pretty lively at the end, but some of them had crept out, and I was embarrassed about that —- about having made a man with a full bladder sneak up the aisle like a cat burglar. It’s happened to me several times. Each time, it felt wonderful until I noticed the time and then I remembered those dim shadowy figures I’d glimpsed in flight.

20. What five words best describes Lake Wobegon?

In love with the world.