Garrison Keillor returns to Aspen on farewell tour
If You Go …
What: “Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion - The America the Beautiful Tour,” presented by Belly Up Aspen and the Aspen Music Festival
When: 7 p.m., Monday, Aug. 24
Where: Benedict Music Tent
How much: $45 to $85
Since his last stop in town just two months ago at Aspen Summer Words, Garrison Keillor has announced his plan to retire from touring and hosting his long-running radio program “A Prairie Home Companion.” The planned retirement makes today’s show at the Benedict Music Tent, most likely, his last local performance.
“I have a lot of other things that I want to do. I mean, nobody retires anymore. Writers never retire. But this is my last season. This tour this summer is the farewell tour,” Keillor told The Associated Press in late July.
The beloved writer, humorist and radio host has spent what seems like most of his time on the road with the long-running variety program. But Keillor’s thoughts, he told the Aspen Times Weekly in June, remain largely in his boyhood home in small-town Minnesota, immortalized in his work as “Lake Wobegon.”
“This is a very odd situation to find oneself in,” Keillor said. “But it seems to be the truth that what happened to me as a child and a teenager is more vivid to me than what happened in the last year.”
That afternoon, Keillor was at home between “Prairie Home Companion” broadcasts in Washington, D.C., and Detroit.
His recounting of his plane trip from Washington to Minnesota offered a glimpse into how he works, how stories unspool from his own life and memory, how a morsel of his childhood transforms into a piece of news from Lake Wobegon.
On the flight, he’d written some notes about his high school prom for his monologue. He started a script featuring his private detective character Guy Noir. Then he found himself — bound for Motor City, USA — thinking about cars. He wrote a song about the pleasure of riding around in a car with a girl. He thought about the first Ford his dad bought — it was the first automobile in town — and ideas grew legs and became stories as he thought about why cars were so important to his father and to Americans as a whole.
“It meant everything to him. Independence, freedom and the excitement of starting out on a trip was an intense pleasure for my dad,” Keillor said. “My father died about nine years ago, but I think of him whenever I put a suitcase into the trunk of a car.”
Thus, a show was born.
Keillor’s live performance on his “merica the Beautiful Tour at the Benedict Music Tent will feature singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz, pianist Richard Dworsky, sound-effects master Fred Newman, The Radio Rhubarb Band with Richard Kriehn and guitarist Chris Siebold along with audience favorites such as Guy Noir, news from Lake Wobegon, an audience chorale and a poetry declamation.
In June at the Aspen Words benefit, Keillor recited naughty limericks (including one he wrote on the plane from Denver to Aspen, opening with “A young Baptist lady of Aspen / Fell down bawling and gaspin’” and spoke extemporaneously — and hilariously — about the writing life.
Keillor has tried his hand at what seems like every form of storytelling. At 72, he continues to challenge himself with new ones. Along with the 41 years of radio programs and decades’ worth of essays in the New Yorker, he has written 20-plus books, ranging from novels to story collections to social criticism to poetry — cutting a wide “man of letters” swath that’s rarely seen today. He recently finished a screenplay about Lake Wobegon — his first proper foray into the form (he was credited for the screenplay for Robert Altman’s 2006 “Prairie Home Companion” film adaptation, but he doesn’t count it). He’s just started writing a musical. And he’s in the midst of a new novel.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written,” he said of that work in progress. “It’s not a Lake Wobegon novel. It stands on its own.”
As he juggles those projects, of course, Keillor is perpetually writing on deadline for “Prairie Home Companion.” He first publicly flirted with retirement from the radio program a few years ago before opting to keep going. This time, it appears to be for real — mandolinist and singer Chris Thile has been named as Keillor’s replacement host beginning next year.
The creative muscle he’s used for it (what he calls a “bastard combination of writing and improv”) is completely different from the dogged persistence required when he writes fiction for the page.
“It really requires a sort of ability to induce memory loss,” he said of writing for the program. “You do a show, and then it’s very necessary to forget it and not to brood about it. … It’s a way of life, really. And I recommend it. It just works much better, having the ability to forget. They don’t teach you that in creative-writing programs. But it’s important. In my line of work, anyway.”
Life on the road with the program, as he described it in June, is less than glamorous.
“I travel in a cocoon,” he said. “I’m up in an airplane, and I sit and write on a laptop. I go to a hotel, and I write. I sit backstage, and I write. So I’ve been everywhere, (but) I’ve not seen very much, and I’m still writing about a town that I knew when I was a teenager.”
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