In 1974, a towering, bespectacled writer for “The New Yorker” walked into the Grand Ole Opry. He was there to write about the Opry’s final run at the Ryman Auditorium before the show moved to the newly-built Grand Ole Opry House. The Opry, the longest running radio show in the U.S., had found its home in the Ryman Auditorium for 30 years. And while beloved stars Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and Little Jimmy Dickens would be coming along for the move, it was in many ways the end of an era.
The writer, Garrison Keillor, was struck by the heart and humor of the Opry and its set of homey regional characters, such as Sarah Cannon’s Minnie Pearl of Grinder’s Switch, Tennessee. Keillor set out to create his own variety show in the vein of the Opry and radio broadcasts from days of yore. On July 6, 1974, A Prairie Home Companion was born.
Country on the Prairie
Country music went hand in hand with Prairie Home, which delivered a weekly slice of rural Americana with a wink and a nod. Keillor crafted live radio ads for fake products like Powdermilk Biscuits, which “give shy persons the strength to do what needs to be done,” and spun tales from Lake Wobegon, a fictional small town which “time forgot and the decades cannot improve.”
From the beginning, Prairie Home championed country and roots music at every turn. Hank Snow’s “Hello Love” served as the program’s first theme song and in between sketches featuring cowboys Dusty and Lefty and “Guy Noir, Private Eye,” country artists were frequent musical guests.
In the video below, legendary flatpicker Doc Watson performs The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” and pays tribute to Jimmie Rodgers in a 1987 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion.
Guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins was a frequent guest on the program. Atkins and Keillor became close friends over the years — Keillor even delivered the eulogy at Atkins’ funeral. The two teamed up to perform “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and “His Eye is One the Sparrow” for an episode of Prairie Home.
Though A Prairie Home Companion is based in Keillor’s home state of Minnesota, the program often goes on the road. In 2013, the crew returned the place that started it all: the Ryman Auditorium. Vince Gill and Suzy Bogguss even took part in a sketch, in which crowd favorites Dusty and Lefty visit Nashville’s Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.
A Prairie Home Companion has continued to celebrate country and roots artists. Earlier this year, Brandi Carlile, Sarah Jarosz and Chris Thile gave a rousing performance of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues.”
A New Beginning
Thile has been an integral part of A Prairie Home Companion since his debut on the show in 1996, when he was just 15. Over the years the mandolinist and member of Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers has made several appearances on the program and even served as a guest host. Last year, Keillor announced that Thile will be taking over as host of A Prairie Home Companion for the 2016 season, which begins Oct. 15.
With Thile at the helm, Prairie Home will place even more of a focus on musical performances. Americana darlings Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan will be on hand as Thile’s duet partners and an all star band, featuring members of The Punch Brothers, will help introduce the classic radio program to a new generation of listeners.
Much like that final night at the Ryman Auditorium, A Prairie Home Companion without Garrison Keillor is the end of an era. But Keillor, who handpicked Thile for the role, has nothing but confidence in his protege.
“Chris is my man,” Keillor told the press last year. “He is, I think, the great bluegrass performer of our time and he is a beautiful jazz player. There just isn’t anything he can’t do — and he is very enthusiastic about live radio.”
Tickets for the 2016 season of A Prairie Home Companion are on sale now and can be found here.