Change has finally come to Lake Wobegon, the little town that time forgot and the fictional Minnesota setting of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion.* Creator Garrison Keillor confirmed last week that he would pass his hosting torch, after 41 years, to Chris Thile, the dazzling mandolin-playing wunderkind of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame, sometime in 2016.
“Chris is my man,” Keillor wrote in a characteristically wry email to the Berkshire Eagle, “and I’m eager to stay home and read books. But of course, I’ll do whatever needs to be done to assure an easy transition—sing, dance, do ‘Guy Noir,’ talk about my home town, whatever is required.”
And Thile, expressing his own brand of winning, faux-naive enthusiasm, compared hosting A Prairie Home Companion to “getting to be Luke Skywalker.”
At which we can all sit back and nod sagely, because this is a brilliant business decision for both a beloved-but-waning radio program and a 33-year-old megastar on the rise. Thile, the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant and multiple Grammy awards, has guest-hosted for Keillor in the past (he first appeared on the shores of Lake Wobegon when he was 15). And he’s a deft, charming entertainer with deep ties to Americana and a devoted fan base that will likely rush in to refresh the ranks of A Prairie Home Companion listeners.
Meanwhile, a lead role on A Prairie Home Companion will earn Thile even more visibility and perhaps help him transition from bluegrass hero to all-purpose American celebrity.
The only person with anything to lose from this arrangement isn’t even a person—it’s folk music. Keillor hinted in 2009 that A Prairie Home Companion would eventually morph from an old-timey exemplar of radio storytelling to a more music-based variety show. I hope that’s true, and that Thile doesn’t let his insane talents as a songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist play second fiddle (so to speak) to his considerable, but less unique, gift of gab. J.S. Bach was by all accounts a magnetic life-of-the-party type (you don’t father 20 kids without some degree of joie de vivre), but he didn’t abandon his fugues to do stand up for Prince Leopold. A Prairie Home Companion has a rich relationship to folk music—performers at their live show at Tanglewood this year include the wondrous Sarah Jarosz and Peter Rowan—but it’s still strange to contemplate that Thile’s next big gig may not be primarily mandolin-based.
Of course, Thile has the right to do as he pleases with his life and career! I can’t wait to see what he makes of the new post. I’m thrilled for Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion, which despite its nostalgic, corn-fed allure could probably use a shake-up. I am also happy for the Wailin’ Jennys, because with Thile otherwise occupied they can perhaps now persuade Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins to sing for them again. I just hope Luke Skywalker knows, taking every chance he dares, that we’ll still be there when (if) he comes back down.
*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled the name of Lake Wobegon.