National Public Radio fans are used to hearing “A Prairie Home Companion” over the airwaves, but for nearly as long as he has been on the air, Garrison Keillor has been taking the show on the road to escape the studio.
“The ‘America The Beautiful Tour’ is a scheme I worked up to ride on a bus and do nightly shows with a great band and sing and mess around with comedy, and also see our great country,” Keillor said. “We started out traveling in a van and carrying a tent and staying in campgrounds and cooking over a fire, and now we travel in two buses with a tech crew and stay in budget hotels and eat in low-priced restaurants. It’s a good life — the road life — and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
He and the rest of those buses’ occupants will arrive on the Amphitheater stage at 8:15 p.m. tonight.
Keillor has hosted the show on the radio and on the road since it began in 1974. During the 2015-2016 season, the program will gradually pass to Chris Thile of Punch Brothers, who performed in the Amp on July 10. Keillor said he wasn’t sure whether Thile will continue to take “A Prairie Home Companion” on the road.
“Chris Thile has been on the road with various bands since he was a kid, and he’s a little road-weary,” Keillor said. “He’s taking over the show next year, thinking he’ll settle down, but the road is irresistible, and surely, he will be back out in a year or two.”
The show is currently broadcast over nearly 700 public radio stations in seven countries, reaching 4 million listeners every week. In addition to his work on the show, Keillor is the author of more than 20 books and poetry anthologies. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, and been awarded a Grammy and a Peabody Award.
“A Prairie Home Companion” last visited Chautauqua in 2013. Keillor described his previous experiences at Chautauqua as “very distinguished.”
“I once sang a duet with the poet Rita Dove [at Chautauqua], and I told a story about 24 Lutheran ministers capsizing on a pontoon boat,” he said. “Good times.”
Tonight’s audience can expect Keillor to do a duet with Sarah Jarosz, an appearance from “A Prairie Home Companion’s” sound effects specialist Fred Newman imitating “singing dolphins, fire alarms, and small children falling into lemon Jell-O,” “a terrific band,” and a tale from Lake Wobegon, Keillor said.
Meanwhile, Keillor said he is enjoying aspects of the tour that go both seen and unseen by his audiences.
“[The most interesting part of the tour is] riding up front with the driver, looking through the enormous windshield, which is like a big movie screen, watching the woods and farms go by, watching for suicidal deer,” he said. “The rewarding part, of course, is doing the show. The songs, the sketches, the long murder ballad, the memoir of the little town with the Main Street and the water tower. That’s what it’s all about.”