Monday, 8 November 2010

The Prairie Away-From-Home Companions

Nashville: Garrison Keillor returning to Nashville? It sounded like a natural. Young Anoka, MN unknown gets his first New Yorker boost for a piece on the Grand Ol’ Opry. Returns fifteen years later as the conquering hero of Public Radio—perhaps its only fiscal heavyweight, the leading draw during PR’s endemic fund-raisers, and by report (of local public radio station managers) a veritable 800 direct-dial cottage industry through its Powdermilk-producing “Wireless” mail order catalog. A Prairie Nostalgic’s Dream Come True.
 
My hunch was right—a luminous occasion, two sold-out shows (3,000 seats in the dazzling new Andrew Jackson Hall of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center), 200 local T-shirts memorializing the APHC first Southern invasion snapped up at $8 a pop before intermission on Friday night’s “rehearsal.” And one of the best monologues this Keillor buff has ever heard—but not about Anoka, rather about the ambiguities of celebrityhood—seen through the falsely na├»ve eyes of a star-struck fan of Loretta Lynn. It was delivered in those husky, slightly hyped tones Keillor assumes when he wants you, perhaps too hard, to like what he’s doing.

He told how he and his pal Don McNeil (“It was 1970 or 71, August”) drove non-stop from Minnesota to Nashville one Friday night, noT knowing that tickets had to be bought way in advance. (He also played around, Playboyishly, with the fact that Ryman Auditorium abuts a red-light, honky-tonky district, which stunned our strict Christian visitor—and got a giggle from the locals who almost to a person were upper-middle-class types who themselves have only read about red light districts—more about the audience demographics later.)
 
Keillor (dropping his PHC mask) remembered breathlessly how they had joined the parked pickups from Alabama and Mississippi, all their car radios tuned to a single glorious frequency, WSM (“We Save Millions”), creating a sort of low fidelity quadraphonic experience. One cracker family kept running their young son Curtis over to Ms. Lynn’s bus, to see whether her holy highnotes had yet emerged to ascend the Ryman stage. Cliffhanger. Finally, she started walking regally up the alley next to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, through an honor guard of her fanatical admirers flaking each side of the alley which led to the stage door, all of them but her slowly getting soaked in one of those dark night drizzles that make Nashville’s August habitable.

In her long white gown, with jet black hair cascading down in back, she was protected from the elements by an umbrella toting aid in a powder blue suit. “She looked like the Queen of England,” Keillor hyperbolized, “right then she was the Queen to us.” And he garnished her singing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with a bit about how hard it was to see the Ryman stage through the breath-of-fresh-air opened windows. (There was only what might be called a slit of opportunity between the stone wall that cut off the bottom and the window frame that cut off the top—tall performers were cropped mercilessly by this primitive form of summer night gate crashing.)
 
By the way, the framing device for this lovely paean of praise was his philosophical aside on how shy people, even adult shy people, don’t have to worry. He had relished this entire occasion without uttering a word.
 
There was one slightly light blue tale about ice fishing and male bonding in the dark and cold of Lake Woebegon. They treasured these chilblaine days together because they could hawk and spit with impunity. (Shades of Huck Finn and the Widow Douglas.) Then when nature called, they all get rid of their many beers outside the fishing shack, and by discreetly scrutinizing the other urinators, determined “that at least when it was very cold” all men were created equal. That was one thing a shy boy could stop worrying about in the dark and cold. Strangely, he disavowed this fishing shack humor with the old have-it-both ways “I can’t believe I really said that.”

Keillor also gave a rousing performance of “Family Radio,” that narrative ballad in which the sign of a junked radio on a garbage dump triggers recollections of how family nurturing the old Zenith had been, and how they listened to Grand Ole Opry on it as well. He got a laugh with an obscure (to me) aside that he was defying a convention of public radio that the mother had to die in the last verse. His mother (and father for that matter) was alive and well, and presumably listening. A delightful further bit of Keillor’s familyizing was the appearance of his 14-year-old son Jason (“I want to keep an eye on him”) playing completely credible guitar as backup to his father’s singing.
 
There was a hilarious bit of television as well in which Garrison plays out a front porch game of letting a cat’s erratically switching tail be the metronomic baton for an audience sing-a-long of “America the Beautiful.” He was not so successful with an improvised interchange with the audience, during which fans tried to establish their credentials by asking ever more esoteric questions about Lake Woebegon exotica.
 
Then there’s the rest of the music. Keillor was glowing in his coup of having Chet Atkins open the set (whence he had to catch a plane was never explained). The lowdown whoops and yelps from this unreconstructed audience of upper-middle-class professionals was pure Civil War. Indeed, at one point, perhaps a nervously shy man flattered his audience to warm it up, apologized for taking so long to make a Southern tour, going on later to add that there were things (unspecified) that you could only find in the South (more yelps).
 
Keillor was even more fulsome in praise of Emmylou Harris, an off-key, pitch-switching whiner if I ever heard one. Which brings up the whole issue of Keillor fans who hate country and / or folk music. My dentist is such a man, and he told me between amalgams the other day that another hayseed-hating patient of his tapes the Keillor monologues as a painful bit of aural surgery so he can listen to Garrison plain on the way to his drills. I know what he means.
 
The Butch Thompson Trio (it was an Uno this trip, with pickup local drummer and bassist to save travel expenses) is not your Downbeat winning jazz aggregation either. Sort of honky tonk piano bar. And “The Masters Five,” a gospel singing quintet of stars from other groups, I found kitschily distasteful, sort of the Barbershop Quartet you might find at a Hard Shell Baptist picnic (to engage in the kind of mock theological diversions G.K. specializes in lately.)

The program notes reveal that J.D. Sumner, the world’s “lowest bass singer,” and a gospel artist for 37 years sang backup for Elvis for seven years. He’s the Southern variant of Kay Kyser’s Ishkabibble of “Boop Boop Dittum Datum Whattum Choo” fame. Keillor lapped him up. My ear says he’s an aural abomination. White gospel music is to black Baptist singing what Elvis was to Duke Ellington, a sellable caricature of black folk culture. As those impious thoughts were swirling through my cerebellum, I eurekaed on something strange about the audience. There wasn’t a single, solitary black in the three thousand! Take it back. There were two ushers and the manager of the theatre.
 
When I brought this odd demographic fact up with the Vanderbilt Yuppie lawyer sitting next to me, he allowed as how it was passing strange. And then went on explaining how black Fisk University had been on the fiscal ropes for years, but that some of his friends in the business community were finally trying to see that it could survive. I allowed as how as we were in Nashville, I’d prefer listening to the Fisk University Jubilee Singers than to these hokey turkeys, the Masters V (as in Latin).
 
But then I guess the folk faction is happy I’m not G.K.’s booking agent. “More jazz, less zither” is not a good APHC bumper sticker. Still it makes one wonder about the sociological animus behind the Lake Woebegon nostalgia machine. In the good old days, before the cities messed up the U.S. Still, strangely (I mean it almost sounded like protesting too much, so undermotivated was the declaration) G.K. affirmed his loyal Democratic politics on the stage of Andrew Jackson Hall in Nashville.
 
Behind that affable, sleepy-eyed persona lurks a very unshy power-broker. Like Hemingway who later on parodied his own hairy chest macho, Keillor may be at the point where shy is becoming shyster. When St. Paul’s RiverFest offered him $40,000 for the World Theatre ceiling, he demanded $70,000 and passed the roof-healing operation by. He even threatened to move APHC out of St. Paul if the legislature didn’t pay for part of the $300,000 receiling job. That’s Anoka hardball, folks.
 
Indeed, the recent ukase from American Public Radio that all 280 affiliates carrying Companion had to broadcast it by 6 p.m. local time, has sent local program managers fuming to their peg boards trying to rejuggle their schedules to accommodate the numero uno from St. Paul. Are we witnessing the first slight Primadonnafication of Garrison Edward Keillor? APHC is the biggest audience builder, best fund raiser on the network, but does that justify APR’s forcing stations to carry all their offerings to earn the right to air Prairie? One east coast manager told me the local stations wouldn’t be so mad if APHC had announced a national tune-in advertising campaign when they laid down the no after 6 p.m. curfew.
 
And there’s just a trace of creeping Studs Terkelism in the new Garrison. Last month he went down to Milwaukee to act as a judge for their annual Young Writers Contest at the Journal. A feisty “Lifestyle” piece noted that Garrison asked to be shown the blue collar redoubts of the city—he wanted to go to no bar where they used the word, “disjunction.” Come on, old English major Gary, guys who have big vocabularies needn’t be shy about those kinds of words. It’s what made the New Yorker great, and you love to bask in the impressive glow of your publications there.
 
Shy is shy. Sly is something else. Meanwhile my dentist, as usual, has found the way to handle a sensitive issue: tape him off, and play him back, solo, unembellished with folk fakery, or fake folkery. Alas, judging from the absence of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from his Nashville gig, he really prefers the cutesy Masters V to the real number. Let’s call him a great comedian with a bad ear, who fell in love with Grand Ole Opry at too impressionable an age. And besides his book comes out, soundlessly, in September!

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