Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
Chris Thile wasn’t available in person for this interview. On the eve of his stint as host of A Prairie Home Companion, the ambitious 35-year-old had just finished touring Japan and Australia with his roots/Americana band, Punch Brothers. There’s also the fact that the Southern California native who first found the spotlight as a child mandolin prodigy doesn’t even live in Minnesota. He and his wife Claire Coffee, an actress on the TV show Grimm, live in Portland, Oregon, where the show is filmed. As he unpacked from the South Pacific tour and turned his attention to the not-inconsequential matter of taking the reins of the show that put American Public Media on the map, we gave him a ring.
How exactly does one replace Garrison Keillor? The magnitude of Garrison’s accomplishment with A Prairie Home Companion is greater than his unique ability to express the context for his life. He created a variety show that has no precedent, that’s utterly unique. It’s profound and yet inevitable. And so, I can’t go in there and tell stories about Minnesota, but I don’t need to because that’s only one of the amazing things Garrison accomplished. The tradition that I’m attempting to uphold is that of a weekly live music–oriented variety show that is two hours long, has no peer, and is indispensable. Someone needs to do this show. If it’s not Garrison, someone needs to do it. And I’m thrilled beyond expression to be the guy who he chose. But we’d all be sunk if what I went up there to do was a Garrison Keillor impression.
What do you say to the people who are pessimistic about APHC’s chances post Keillor? I congratulate them on their keen sense of reality. This might not work. Garrison has been hosting this show for more than 40 years, and while the show’s name is A Prairie Home Companion, often people refer to it as “Garrison Keillor.” But if you actually describe the nature of the show, it’s eminently appealing. [With] two hours of live music and hilarity, I think you’re going to get a lot of takers. If we can do it, then we will have proven that Garrison Keillor created something that can live beyond his direct involvement. That’s the purest hope of any creator.
What is Chris Thile’s APHC going to be like? There will be more of an emphasis on guests than there has been before. Two musical guests and then a spoken-word guest. And while that’s not new to the show, that it will be a regular occurrence is. There will be a new house band, but then the [radio actors] will be largely the same—such a specialized entity is the Royal Academy of Radio Actors that it didn’t seem wise to change it too much. And we have a new quiver of immensely talented writers, whereas Garrison wrote almost every word of the show himself weekly. There will still be skits, but it won’t be “Guy Noir” and “Lives of the Cowboys” because those are Garrison. I won’t be telling the Lake Wobegon story—no one will—but there will still be storytelling.
Will your APHC appeal to the same audience as Garrison’s? I’m looking for people of any age who love laughing and love good music. Theoretically, the goal is to not lose anyone and to add a bunch of young people, and not because we’re all of a sudden going to make it cool and hip, but rather because young people like good things too. In no way do I wish to exclude the current audience. I’ve long been a part of that audience and I feel a serious kinship with them. You know, I’ve been on the show since I was 15, and there’s been no bigger part of the development of my audience than being on APHC.
How do you talk about prairie homes when you’re not actually from one? I won’t be talking about life on the prairie, because I’m from Southern California, live in Portland, and before here it was New York. [But] the show will always be from St. Paul, Minnesota, regardless of the directions that I take it. And it will always have been created by Garrison Keillor. Everything has to come off as sincere from a 35-year-old of fairly diffuse origins, and I think it will. But I also don’t remember a time before my family would sit down and listen to the show every Saturday. So even though I’m not from Minnesota, there’s a huge part of me that’s a child of this show. I was just there for the State Fair and had a really great time but was reminded that, for Minnesotans, it’s your show, which is super understandable. But for Americans, just in general, it’s our show too. I grew up in a very small town in Southern California and I felt like when Garrison was talking about Lake Wobegon, he was talking about our town. So, it is from Minnesota, but Garrison himself is a globetrotter and a student of life and has given all of us this oasis at the end of our week—this safe haven—and, yeah, I’m going to try and do my best to make sure we still have that spot.
A Prairie Home Companion with Chris Thile begins October 15 at the Fitzgerald Theater. Here's a rundown of some of the star-studded roster of guests so far:
October 15 – Jack White, Lake Street Dive
October 22 – Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, John Hodgman
October 29 – Esperanza Spalding, Aparna Nancherla
Fore a more detailed schedule visit prairiehome.org.