‘Prairie Home’ gets a new companion

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JUDY WOODRUFF: You can imagine it is not easy to step in and take over a popular broadcast show, especially one that was hosted for more than 40 years by its creator and stamped with his personality.

But as the new season kicks off for one of public radio’s longtime favorites, Jeffrey Brown has the story of how a new host is trying to put his own spin on it.

CHRIS THILE, A Prairie Home Companion: You know, I suspect we’re going to have some fun this evening.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: The new “A Prairie Home Companion,” still at the beautiful Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, still a two-hour variety show presented live on public radio, but now led by 35-year-old Chris Thile.

CHRIS THILE: I’m obsessed with the good things that people make to give to one another. This show is a place, has been one of America’s most consistent sources of good things for 40 years. And I feel like it’s imperative that it continue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since its founding in 1974, of course, “A Prairie Home Companion” has been synonymous with one man, Garrison Keillor. He hosted it, wrote it, embodied it with a sense of the people and place he knew in his bones.

GARRISON KEILLOR, A Prairie Home Companion: That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two years ago on this very stage, Keillor told me of the magic of radio and storytelling.

GARRISON KEILLOR: I think there’s — there’s a lot of power in listening to one person talking to you. And — and this should never be underestimated.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was Keillor who hand-picked his successor, one who’d been performing on the show since age 15 and had listened to it even earlier.

CHRIS THILE: Some of my earliest memories are of hearing Garrison Keillor’s voice in our living room, at a point when I…

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

CHRIS THILE: Yes, when I couldn’t even tell the difference between his voice and my father’s voice. It’s like an authoritative — this authoritative, paternal sound coming from the radio.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chris Thile, who grew up in Southern California, was a child prodigy on the mandolin. With groups like Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, he grew into a leader of a new generation of bluegrass-based, genre-bending musicians.

He can seemingly do anything with his instrument. I first spoke to Thile three years ago when he recorded an album of Bach Partitas.

CHRIS THILE: The fugal pieces where they’re all about precision, and these second voices come in and then there’s a third voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Musician, band leader, showman, and now host of a program that’s lost listeners in recent years, but still reaches some three-and-a-half million.

We watched rehearsal the day before the first live show. During a break, Thile spoke of the challenge of bringing in new and younger viewers, while replacing Garrison Keillor.

CHRIS THILE: I believe strongly that quality is not a generationally exclusive thing, that when you get to a certain level of goodness, it will appeal to everyone. I think there will necessarily be people who wanted exactly what Garrison was delivering and don’t want anything else. I have to…

JEFFREY BROWN: You may lose some people.

CHRIS THILE: I have to let them go…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

CHRIS THILE: … because they will be just as dissatisfied with my best imitation of Garrison Keillor’s delivery of the show as they will be with whatever I would like to do with it. But I also really think that they will be in the minority.

And now another exciting episode of Detective Miller, phone cop.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new news from Lake Wobegon? It’s gone, as are some of the show’s regular storylines.

But actor Tim Russell has stayed on and now works with new writers. I asked what we might expect, and he went right into character.

TIM RUSSELL, Actor: Well, I must tell you, Chris — I mean Jeffrey. I’m sorry. I’m not good with names, OK? There might be a little political stuff. I don’t know. You could ask Bernie Sanders, but one-tenth of what we do will maybe be comedic.

What this public radio station needs is a membership revolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump did make it into one skit.

TIM RUSSELL: It’s true. It’s true. Only I can make public radio great again. OK?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But the humor is still more Saturday evening Minnesota than “Saturday Night Live.”

The nasty political season did come up in a song about autumn that Thile wrote. Instead of a Keillor-like opening monologue, he plans to begin each show with an original tune. He also plans to shake up the musical offerings a bit, which is just fine by longtime bandleader Rich Dworsky, who started at “Prairie Home” 23 years ago and will stay on.

RICH DWORSKY, Band Leader, “A Prairie Home Companion”: Chris is 35 years old, so he knows a different set of music. He knows different cultural references. So, everything is going to be maybe a little bit younger and hipper and edgier, you know, like the kids are today.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Like those kids are.

RICH DWORSKY: And now I’m the old guy.

JEFFREY BROWN: For week one, the musical muscle came from a bona fide rock star, Jack White, and from the pop-soul sound of a rising group, Lake Street Dive.

Rachael Price and Mike Olson think the new “Prairie Home” can connect with young people eager for a music experience that goes beyond Pandora or Spotify.

RACHAEL PRICE, Lake Street Dive: The more that formats change, the more relevant these sort of older formats become, because they have so much value.

MIKE OLSON, Lake Street Dive: The desire to have a vinyl record and the desire to listen to a variety show and these kinds of things goes beyond nostalgia. And that’s a very visceral experience. And there’s something I think directly transferable to a show like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: To the extent that it can even be a cool thing?

RACHAEL PRICE: Yes. It’s cool that people used to sit down in their homes and listen to the radio together. That’s a cool thing. And there’s no reason why we should stop doing that, even though we have all of these other ways to, like, entertain ourselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: This, Chris Thile believes in his bones.

CHRIS THILE: Radio is a podcast that’s happening right now, live radio. Like, this is — our show is a live show, so…

JEFFREY BROWN: You like that aspect, clearly.

CHRIS THILE: I love that. There is nothing between you and what’s happening, like the — and I love the communal aspect of that, the idea that we could be connected in real time with that many people. The radio hasn’t lost any of its relevance in our lives. It’s still a unique piece of technology.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lake Wobegon may be gone, that is, but a great show, live on the radio, well, maybe that lives on.

CHRIS THILE: It is such a pleasure to spend a Saturday evening in this fashion with you fine people out there in radio land and here at the Fitz. I look forward to many, many more.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: From St. Paul, Minnesota, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, you can watch Chris Thile perform his first original song of the week for the new show about this autumn season of leaves falling and campaign rhetoric flying. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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