Ryman inspired Keillor's beloved 'Prairie Home'

Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 1:00am

Music City and the Ryman Auditorium played a key role in the creation of the beloved landmark radio show A Prairie Home Companion, which airs locally from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturdays on WPLN-90.3FM.

A Renaissance man-type, its host and creator Garrison Keillor was in Nashville in 1974 to research an article he was writing for The New Yorker about the Grand Ole Opry leaving its home in the Ryman for a spot in the suburbs near Opryland Hotel.

“So I went to Nashville for a week, stayed at a cheap hotel, picked up little bits of color — tried to see Chet Atkins, but he was busy and didn’t know who I was, ran into Ray Acuff in an instrument shop, and he was good and crusty. I found an impoverished songwriter who had written a song called “Goodbye, Dear Old Ryman” and was hoping to have a hit with it, and I met an old fiddler named Sid Harkreader who knew some of the original Opry musicians from 1925. I gathered up some threads of a story, wrote it, and it was published in the magazine in May of that year, I believe.”

After completing the assignment, Keillor returned to his home in Minnesota. But from the color he witnessed in this music town, Keillor was inspired to start his own radio variety show. He took the name “A Prairie Home Companion” from the Prairie Home cemetery in Moorhead, Minn., and started the weekly show that July.

From that humble beginning, A Prairie Home Companion is now heard weekly by fans not only nationwide, courtesy of Minnesota Radio’s Distribution and American Public Media, but around the world through American Armed Forces Radio Network, America One and Sirius XM Satellite Radio. WRN Europe, NPR Worldwide, BBC Radio 7 and RTE Radio 1 in Ireland, plus Australia’s ABC Radio national, are other outlets that bring the show to a weekly audience of almost 4 million listeners in America and millions more overseas.

The show often tours, making stops in celebrated cities, and on Sunday Keillor and crew will take the stage at the Ryman with two Prairie performances. Special guests will include mandolin extraordinaire Sam Bush and country star Brad Paisley.

The show combines musical segments, radio drama, and a comedic and storytelling entry called “News from Lake Wobegon.” This features Keillor joining forces with some of the world’s finest performers in a program that’s become so popular it spawned a 2006 film that co-starred Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones and L.Q. Jones, among many others.

“I was too close to the Altman (director Robert Altman) film to be any judge of it,” Keillor wrote in an e-mail. “When you’re round for the shoot, you’re just sort of astonished that anything coherent came out of it at all.”

However, he’s much more specific when asked about occasional television versions of the popular radio show.

“We did the show on the Disney channel for a year or so in the late ‘80s, and it just didn’t look good,” Keillor said. “I’d love to try again, but when it comes right down to it, I’m a writer. What I love to do is sit in a room alone and write. And doing TV means that you sit in a room with eight other people and they all look at what you’ve written and are pretty sure they could’ve done it better.”

When asked about particular favorites among the numerous guests on the show over the years, Keillor cites Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Sam Bush, Chet Atkins and Brad Paisley.

“Paisley is the biggest thing going in country music, does huge successful arena shows all over the country, but he comes on our show as a guitarist, loves to sit in with the band, plays his stuff solo, acts in sketches. The guy knows who he is and what he does and that is true elegance,” Keillor said. “The man is possessed of elegance.”

These days Keillor is exceptionally busy. Between radio broadcasts, he’s worked on several new books with four slated for release at different times in 2009. One is Pilgrims, his third Lake Wobegon-themed novel in the last three years, due to be released in mid-September. Another is a novella tentatively set for November with a working title of A Christmas Blizzard. May will see the release of 77 Love Sonnets> from his Common Good Books bookstore, and then in August comes Life Among the Lutherans, a collection of monologues from the radio show, plus things from some of his Lake Wobegon novels over the last two decades about Lutherans.

“I have no plans beyond the summer,” Keillor said. “I set out from college in 1969 with the goal of being a self-supporting writer, and that’s what I’ve gone and done. The New Yorker picked me up when I was 27, and I started the show when I was 32 and had a best-seller when I was 43, and all through it I managed to avoid teaching or hard work of any kind. I just coasted along in radio and wrote fiction and fell in love with women.

“I don’t know that the show will last through next season — lots of fast cars out there and I’m not crossing streets as quickly as I used to, so it’s just a matter of time before I intersect with one of them — but I do know that last week’s show was big fun to do, and I expect next week’s will be, too

What: ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ with special guests Sam Bush and Brad Paisley
When: 4:45 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Ryman Auditorium, 116 5th Ave. N.
Cost: $30, $52, $67 (9 p.m. show only; 4:45 p.m. show is sold out)
Info: 889-3060, ryman.com