Days before taking over Garrison Keillor’s post as the new host of A Prairie Home Companion, Chris Thile sits at home in Portland, Oregon, his mind drifting from Lake Wobegon — the fictional prairieland where, for more than 40 years, Keillor set most of the public-radio show’s stories — to the task at hand.
“People out there need a break, man,” he says, taking a breather from his show prep to talk about the audience he’s about to inherit. “Our fall has been hijacked by a presidential election. It’s a very important election, and I will certainly be addressing that on the show, but hopefully I can provide people a little bit of relief, too. Music and laughter: those are top-shelf forms of relief, I’d say.”
Thile is taking his new job seriously. Wistfully nostalgic and proudly old-fashioned from its very first broadcast in 1974, A Prairie Home Companion has grown into one of public radio’s longest-running staples, bridging the gap between a simpler era — a time when families crowded not in front of the TV set, but around the family radio for entertainment, like something out of a Rockwell painting — and the fast-paced, digital present. “I want to work radio shows like this back into our lives,” he enthuses. “People my age are having children now, and [listening to shows like A Prairie Home Companion] is such a wonderful thing to do as a family. At the end of the week, maybe you’re in your car and you only turn it on for 15 minutes, but you still get to feel connected to something else. It’s church-like, in a way. The radio — this old piece of technology that’s still crackingly current — gives you this communal experience in real time.”
There are obstacles, of course. The average listener of A Prairie Home Companion is 59 years old, and some of Keillor’s recurring segments — skits that may have felt fresh during the late-Seventies — now skew closer to outdated traditions. Thile, who turns 36 in February, has been charged not only with preserving the show’s appeal, but also revising its structure and broadening its reach to younger generations. The trick in dialing back that median age by a few decades, he says, is music.
“I wanna really blow the doors off on the musical front,” admits the singer, songwriter and Grammy-winning mandolin virtuoso, who made his Prairie Home Companion debut at 15 years old. Back then, Thile was a member of Nickel Creek, the young bluegrass group whose members added pop-friendly punch and adolescent appeal to the music of their grandparents’ generation. In many ways, stepping into Keillor’s shoes won’t be too different from establishing himself in the roots-music community. Thile is used to being told he’s too young for the job — and he’s used to nailing the job, regardless.
When A Prairie Home Companion kicks off its new season this Saturday night at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, Jack White and Lake Street Dive will be among the musical guests. Thile says the audience can expect similar variety from future episodes, with roots-rockers, folksingers, jazz musicians, soul revivalists and bluegrass bands all taking the stage.
“I want the show to be a home for the breadth of the good music being made in the world,” he adds. “My musical output has been consistently acoustic, but my taste has not. I love everything. As long as it’s good, I’m in. If you’re sitting there going, ‘Well, these particular genres are the only genres I like,’ that’s like saying, ‘I only like books with this particular kind of cover.’ Because that’s all genre is. It’s a discussion of texture. In my mind, there’s this one ‘super genre,’ which is the only genre that matters, and that’s the super genre of good music.”
Thile knows this might be a lot for the show’s older listeners to take, and he doesn’t plan on leaving them behind. “We’re gonna throw them a line,” he promises. “We’re not just gonna say, ‘Here’s your spinach. Eat it.’ We’re gonna sauté that spinach in some final olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. It’ll be great.”
Perhaps the most crucial ingredient in Thile’s radio-show-revision recipe is his Song of the Week. Every broadcast will feature a newly-penned composition, its lyrics and instrumental themes tailored to current events. Thile already test-drove the idea earlier this year, when he performed “Omahallelujah” — a song about the godly talents of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning — during a Prairie Home taping on February 6th. The song was a hit, and Thile has since committed to repeating the feat every week. If all goes according to plan, the recurring Song of the Week will become the centerpiece of his program, just as Keillor’s storytelling segment, “The News From Lake Wobegon,” characterized his own time with the series. It’ll be his signature contribution.
“I love having this deadline,” Thile says, minutes before ending our phone call, picking up his mandolin and restarting his songwriting engines. “Garrison told me I would. When he first pitched me on this show, he said, ‘Sometimes you can just sit there and revise yourself into oblivion.’ I heard something similar from another buddy of mine, who’s a writer. He said, ‘You just have to throw clay on the wheel.’ There’s nothing to work with unless you get something on there. Otherwise, you’re revising before anything has even been written. So here I am, on the precipice of writing this song, knowing that this thing doesn’t exist yet, and I will be performing it on American Public Radio for a couple million people on Saturday. There’s no choice. It’s just going to happen. And I love that.”