Garrison Keillor, with glasses
  • Photo by Andrew Harrer
  • Garrison Keillor, with glasses

In my car on the way to Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary last Saturday, I tuned my radio to NPR just in time to hear Garrison Keillor say “Lutherans,” followed by riotous laughter. It didn’t really matter what the set-up had been: It was one of many comfortingly familiar cues built into Prairie Home Companion, Keillor’s long-running radio variety show. You hear the word “Lutheran” and you know to laugh. (See also “Internet,” “latte” and “vegan.”)

My significant other and I don’t disagree about much. Prairie Home Companion is a notable exception. She won’t even let me listen to it when we’re in the car together. And I understand! It’s cheesy and maudlin and antiquated—and I love it: Me, an ardent devotee of cerebral modernist music and postmodern literature.

But the very moment I heard that Prairie Home Companion was coming to Cary, on its non-broadcasted yet fully featured “Summer Love” tour, I e-mailed my editor to beg him to send me, even though it would mean missing the last night of Hopscotch in downtown Raleigh.

“I could only get you one ticket, so you can’t bring a date,” my editor apologized.

“Won’t be a problem,” I replied.

I discovered Prairie Home Companion in fifth grade, when a beloved teacher (who also took me to one of my first concerts, Simon & Garfunkel) played it for us in class. Two decades later, and Keillor’s voice still hits me like a powerful opiate. As I walked the wooded path into Koka Booth Amphitheater and Keillor’s introduction boomed out—Sara Watkins, Fred Newman, Robin and Linda Williams—I couldn’t help but imagine a giant radio on the stage; it was difficult to imagine Keillor living outside of that mechanical box. And yet there he was, in the flesh, in a gray suit with a red tie, socks and sneakers. For some reason, it shocked me that he wasn’t wearing glasses.

It was incredibly fun to watch Keillor and the sound-effects whiz Newman sharing a microphone, riffing off of each other with the relaxed polish of many years’ practice, and Pat Donohue is truly a smokin’ guitarist. An old-fashioned slat-bench onstage occasioned a riff on bucket seats—“For the young folks,” Keillor explained, “this was before Ralph Nader got involved.” This led to riffs on text messaging, and how people don’t date anymore—they “hang out”—and how boring things used to be … but we had radio! Which segued into a medley including “Under the Boardwalk” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Keillor waxed nostalgic about Cary’s Ashworth Drug Store, and noted that Koka Booth himself was somewhere on the grounds, which also featured a bust of his head: “See if you can tell the difference,” he ribbed. Later, in a “story of life” riff with Newman, Keillor uttered the words “swim up a vagina” and that is something I can never un-hear.

Before we even got to the “News at Lake Wobegon,” during the traditional odes to powder-milk biscuits and rhubarb pie, I thought back to my fifth-grade teacher. A few years after I left his class, he was fired for allegations of sexual impropriety. This is the sort of thing that just doesn’t happen in the Rockwellian fantasyland of Lake Wobegon. I thought about how many of us in middle-class America emerge from the sheltered Lake Wobegons of our childhoods only to see them sour or fade, and how we can never go back—except for two hours per week on this radio show, a beautiful dream of something that doesn’t exist and probably never did.