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Opinion

‘A Prairie Home Companion’ continues to be an influence

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October 19, 2016

The deep voice, and sometimes the nose breathing, of radio show host, musician and author Garrison Keillor has been a soundtrack to my childhood ever since I could remember, even when I used to beg to be able to listen to literally anything else. Now, I look forward to hearing old episodes of this baby boomer classic more than I ever thought I could imagine, or will admit to my parents.

Every weekend, no matter where we all happened to be, “A Prairie Home Companion,” which started on July 6, 1974, hosted by Keillor, would ring out from the radio. Nothing my brother and I said could change that. When we were little and stuck in the back of the truck coming home from our cabin, we would listen to the stories from Lake Wobegon, a place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” Stories of fireside cowboys Dusty and Lefty and the exploits of Guy Noir, a detective living in “a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets,” would come on and we would have to turn our voices off.

Due to continued and relentless exposure, or maybe parental brainwashing, I eventually became entranced by the slow, storytelling style of Keillor and looked forward to hearing the fake advertisements for Bebop-a-Rebop Rhubarb Pie, PowderMilk biscuits (“Heavens they’re tasty!”) and the Catchup Advisory Board, a condiment for “the good times.”

In addition to being forced to be a receptive audience, my brother and I were also dragged along to live performances, first as little kids who fell asleep long before the show was over, and later as teenagers who sat spellbound watching Fred Newman, the sound effects guy, create voices and different sounds on the fly to follow along with Keillor’s improvisations by using the heeled shoes around his neck, a half filled glass of water or crackling paper to create fire sounds. Newman was a perfect addition to “A Prairie Home Companion” and to Keillor’s fictional world, allowing me to feel like I was sitting right next to Poncho and Lefty around the campfire.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and baby boomers eventually have to retire. Therefore, “A Prairie Home Companion” with longtime host Garrison Keillor, now age 74, broadcast for the last time on July 1, 2016. This last show had all of the standard fan favorites: superb sound effects from Newman, original musical talent, Keillor’s iconic voice and even a call from President Obama. It was a very quiet house that listened and hung onto every word of the final broadcast, especially for my dad, who has been with “A Prairie Home Companion” since the beginning. He could not quite believe that the show, as he had always known it, was ending.

But after every sad ending comes a new beginning, and last weekend, Oct. 15, 2016, that is exactly what happened. “A Prairie Home Companion,” with new host Chris Thile, a 35-year-old, multiple Grammy award winner, expert mandolin player and singer, made his debut as the new host to the millions of dedicated listeners of “A Prairie Home Companion.”

While this new chapter of this legendary show will no longer be updating people on the the news from Lake Wobegon, I think Thile will be able to convince his audience that maybe that is not such a bad thing. During his new show, Thile focused more on the music, performing an original “song of the week” and showcasing new acoustic work from guest Jack White. Even though Thile is not doing a traditional monologue or fictional stories, skits and stand-up comedy routines were sprinkled throughout the premiere and kept the audience laughing and entertained.

Although I may not be receptive to change at first, my history with the show and loving influence of my parents have proven that “A Prairie Home Companion” will continue to be a soundtrack of my past and now of my future.

Lauren Simenson is a student at UW-River Falls.