Public radio icon Garrison Keillor will be in Little Rock Tuesday for a live performance at Robinson Center Music Hall. In advance of the show, the 75-year-old spoke with KUAR’s Michael Hibblen about life after retiring from his long running program A Prairie Home Companion, his connections to Arkansas, and his thoughts on current affairs. The interview was recorded Thursday as Keillor was traveling to a show in Asheville, North Carolina.
MICHAEL HIBBLEN: Garrison Keillor, it’s great to talk with you.
GARRISON KEILLOR: Good to talk to you Michael.
HIBBLEN: Where are you right now?
KEILLOR: I am racing along a highway in Tennessee heading for North Carolina.
HIBBLEN: And you just played a show there last night?
KEILLOR: I did, I did. It was an audience that was trying to escape from the World Series, so there were a lot of women in the audience. But it was a festive bunch, and as it turns out, the 7th game of the World Series was the most boring game in a long time unless you’re from Houston, so they made a wise choice.
HIBBLEN: Well thanks for giving me a few minutes. I’ve prepared a few questions, but also invited listeners and friends to submit some questions, so I’ve got a random mix of questions to ask you about. And I met you 13 or 14 years ago when I was working at WLRN in Miami.
KEILLOR: Oh, sure, yeah.
HIBBLEN: And I had you sign a copy of WLT: A Radio Romance, and you signed it “To Michael, A radio guy.” So I always appreciated that.
KEILLOR: And here we are, we’re still in the same line of work.
HIBBLEN: Yeah, amazing. Well first off, what’s in store for those going to your show here in Little Rock?
KEILLOR: Well, I like to talk about being 75. I think it’s a wonderful age, and of course it depends on luck and, in my case, it depends on blood thinners and, you know, certain minor surgeries here and there all carried out by geeks who did well in organic chemistry, not my fellow English majors. So it’s a kind of righteous time of life when you look back over your 75 years and you draw interesting conclusions from it. You get to see things in some perspective and I’m retired, but I’m trying not to be, and I get to talk about that a little bit. And of course, I talk about my hometown Lake Wobegon out on the edge of the prairie and talk about going back there for a funeral of an old girlfriend, which is my most recent experience which is, you know, it’s kind of a wakeup call going to pay homage to the first girl you ever necked with.
HIBBLEN: Yeah, I’m sure. How has retirement been for you? You’re obviously still keeping pretty busy.
KEILLOR: Well it has been busy because I have some large projects that I’m trying to finish up while I still have all my marbles. I’m finishing up a book of limericks and I’m writing a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and then I owe my publisher a memoir, which I don’t know when I’m going to finish that – when I’m done living I guess.
HIBBLEN: Well I know you had one big show you did live here in Arkansas in 2004, February 7th in Hot Springs, the Rubarb Tour. We’ve got a poster of that in the hallway and that featured the incredible songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and Sam Bush, an icon of bluegrass, and that started me looking that up and going through all the incredible musicians you had play on your show over the decades. Do you ever look back at some of the people you had on or just the incredible shows you had over the years?
KEILLOR: I try not to. I believe in forging forward. I have a 19-year-old daughter and she keeps me facing forward, though I did go with her to a dance. It was a ‘50s dance at her school and that was kind of nostaligic. It was interesting to see teenagers bouncing up and down to Buddy Holly and Richie Valens and all the heroes of my misspent youth. No, I mainly am thinking about work I have promised I would finish. I’m still working on it. I’m perpetually late which is odd for somebody who did a live show in radio where you had to be there at exactly 5 o’clock central time every Saturday for 42 years, but that’s the story of my life. I’m about five cents and 15 minutes behind.
HIBBLEN: So for you coming to Arkansas, anything stick out to you about this state?
KEILLOR: Well, my hero Charles Portis is from Arkansas who wrote True Grit and Norwood and Dog of [the South]; the funniest novels ever written by an American were written by an Arkansan, Charles Portis. I met him once. He was a very quiet guy. He’d been a newspaper man in New York, and then he went back home and started writing about what he really knew about. My old editor at The Atlantic, Bill Whitworth, is from Little Rock. And my favorite uncle, my uncle Aldridge who was a doctor; he married my Aunt Eleanor; he was from Fayetteville. And, he got in ferocious arguments with my grandmother. My grandmother, who stood her ground, and she argued that people of color were just as good as white people and maybe even better, harder working and better to their families and more devout Christians, and my poor uncle Aldridge had to stand up for (former Arkansas Governor) Orval Faubus for segregation. He knew it was wrong, but, you know, that was his position and he had to defend it. I respected him for fighting for a losing cause.
HIBBLEN: Well we just marked the 60th anniversary of the integration of Central High School.
KEILLOR: It was an event that was just inexplicable to us up in Minnesota at the time. What was the year, ’56?
HIBBLEN: ’57. September of ’57 was when the President sent in the Army.
KEILLOR: It was so strange to see good people out in the streets behaving so badly toward these very earnest and good teenagers who were wearing their best clothes. They thought if they just dressed up and were polite that people would be nice to them, and it was just such a sad occasion to see all of that shouting towards people who just wanted to get an education: the American dream.
HIBBLEN: Well a couple of other questions here that folks sent in. Wayne Roustan said that seeing as you gained fame and success recreating old-time radio, what do you think the future of radio will be like? We’ve got podcasting now and corporate radio that has scaled back the staff of radio stations to next to nothing, what do you think looking ahead to the future? Will radio be around?
KEILLOR: I think that people still want the same thing that they wanted years ago. People have not changed all that much and people still love to feel that somebody is talking to them. And it may be somebody who’s spinning political conspiracy theories; it may be some warm old uncle on the radio; it may be some hip, late night guy playing jazz; it can come in all sorts of forms. It may be somebody telling stories about hardcore Lutherans in a small town in Minnesota. But they still want to feel that somebody is talking to them, and I don’t get this from TV. I watch TV when I’m on the road, and there’s a big screen in the hotel room, and there’s a remote, and I just go clicking from one station to another; and I never have that feeling that there is somebody there who is trying to tell me something, and I think radio is still the medium for that and it’s wide open. You know, it’s wide open – waiting for some shy, geeky person like me to come in and turn on the microphone.
HIBBLEN: Another friend, Shelby Brewer, said that she was the daughter of a Lutheran preacher. She said her dad adored you, took her to Hot Springs to see the show I mentioned. She wanted me to ask how you’re keeping your faith these days given the current state of the country and the political environment and in particular, President Trump.
KEILLOR: Well, the same principles are still there; they’re permanent, and they will still… they will go on. Lincoln stated them in the Gettysburg Address, government of the people, for the people, and Mr. Jefferson wrote them down in the Declaration of Independence, and they’re in our oldest documents that all men are created equal with certain by their creator, certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. You interpret that as best you can, but that phrase all men, and women, are created equal is permanent and nobody is going to modify that. They can do whatever they want to in Washington and people will be alarmed or they will cheer or they will ignore it, but the declaration is still valid, it’s still there in front of us.
HIBBLEN: Mark Smith who is the Development Director of KASU, a partner station of ours up in Jonesboro, wanted me to ask if the current administration has changed the climate of political humor.
KEILLOR: I think it has obviously been open season. I think Mr. Trump’s administration has been a fabulous gift to late night comedians and not to me. I don’t get into it, I leave it to people who are more talented and people who are more passionate. I’m 75 and I’ve seen a lot of demagogues come and go and so it doesn’t affect me as deeply. What really affects me is to be 75 and to be thinking about my mother and father and think about people I went to high school with and I just have an unending interest in my own heritage of devout, fundamentalist Christian’s King James Bible Christians and Midwesterners and dairy farmers and Norwegian immigrants and a whole complex menagerie of human beings, that’s what I’m interested in.
HIBBLEN: I read that since retiring your show last year you haven’t been necessarily listening or keeping tabs on your successor Chris Thile, who’s doing a great job. Are you still kind of not listening or have you started listening to the show?
KEILLOR: I don’t listen to it. I made a resolution that I would not because I did not want him to wonder what I thought of his show. I wanted him to be completely, absolutely free of the old show and to make his new show. Some people tell me what they think, but I’ve not listened to it at all. I think he’s a person of enormous talent and enthusiasm and those are two things that I did not have when I started out, so he’s got some real advantages.
HIBBLEN: Well I think he’s slowly been, while it’s a familiar format, been making it his own and putting his own stamp on the program.
HIBBLEN: Do you miss it at all?
KEILLOR: I miss getting to sing duets with women. I miss standing next to tall women and singing a harmony part to them. I miss being Guy Noir and being Lefty, playing the little dramatic roles I got to do and playing Dwayne and listening to my mother on the phone, I miss all of that. I don’t miss being the head honcho and, you know, being the manager of other people and deciding who to book and who not to book. I’m a coward when it comes to saying no to people, so life is easier now without management responsibilities.
HIBBLEN: Well one more question here, Dorothy Graves wants to know what is your formula for telling a good story?
KEILLOR: I don’t think there is a formula. I think one wants to skip the preliminaries and usually you can jump to the second or third page, but I believe in chronology, I believe in a sense of time, and I think concision is usually pretty important, and you want to pay attention to your audience. Your audience will always tell you if you are going in the right direction. Your audience, you’ll see them fade or you’ll see them lean forward, you’ll see them reach into their pocket for their cell phone to see what time it is. Your audience is your absolute guide for telling the sort of stories that I tell which, you know, are meant to be humorous.
HIBBLEN: So you do kind of moderate and roll with it based on how the audience is responding?
KEILLOR: Absolutely, absolutely. If they don’t laugh, it’s not funny. That’s the basic rule in this line of work.
HIBBLEN: Well I look forward to seeing you when you’re playing here, Robinson Center Music Hall next Tuesday. Anything else you’d like to mention?
KEILLOR: Nope. I’m looking forward to seeing my old editor Bill Whitworth and he was a great editor at The New Yorker and at The Atlantic and I’m looking forward to sitting `down and having a meal with him.
HIBBLEN: Well great, we’ll all be happy to have you in town so Garrison Keillor, thank you very much for taking some time to talk with me.
KEILLOR: Thank you Michael.