Garrison Keillor was standing on his front porch in Minneapolis the first time I saw him. It was very early, and it was still dark when we pulled into his driveway. He was very tall, and he had a large dark cat wrapped around the back of his neck.
Now, A Prairie Home Companion, which has had many incarnations, is a movie directed by Robert Altman, and my old friend Garrison has become a movie star. I went to see the movie recently, and it brought back many good memories of the three times my Bluegrass band played on the radio show created by Garrison out of a writer's yearning for another time.
Back in the late '70s, Keillor located the Katie Laur Band through our record albums, and he called our bass player, Larry Nager, about luring us to Minnesota. He heard something in us he liked, he said. We had never heard of him, and I was less than enthusiastic about driving that far. For all we knew about Minnesota, they had snow and ice 10 months a year and still hadn't made peace with the Indians.
Nevertheless, our first performance was on May 17, 1980, the second A Prairie Home Companion to be nationally broadcast.
The oriental rugs were there, as was the backstage curtain fold where we gathered to play 15 or 20 minutes at intermission. This small performance went onto the radio, but not to the live audience, and allowed stations to identify themselves and whatever else it is they do to satisfy FCC regulations. I think it was Swedish Independence Day, and Garrison had found a traveling Swedish band. They sang in Swedish, except for one song, "Fox on the Run," which they obligingly performed in a kind of phonetic English.
In those days, Garrison still had an early radio show, the original A Prairie Home Companion, named after a local cemetery. We got to Garrison's house, had an hour's nap, and had to get up, drink coffee and go to his early morning radio show to promote our appearances. Being interviewed by him meant staying on your toes. He was a brilliant man, a virtual encyclopedia of music.
Garrison shared a house with the producer of A Prairie Home Companion, Margaret Moos. It was a great house in a pleasantly old-fashioned part of Minneapolis. It reminded me of the square in Clifton. Garrison had a lot of books on natural wood shelves all over his living room. Jeff Roberts recalls vividly that Garrison had no shower curtain. It was one of those things that outraged Jeff occasionally. How could anyone have a hit radio show and no shower curtain? Garrison not only had no shower curtain, but Jeff felt sure he was not even thinking about acquiring one. "What would cause a man not to have a shower curtain," Jeff would say, fixing his listener with an almost hypnotic gaze.
Garrison always got us a weekend gig at the local Extempore Coffee House to defray expenses. It had mismatched chairs and wobbly tables, and I think we played for the door and sold some records. (Fiddler Buddy Griffin always grimaced when I said we were playing anything "for the door." "I've got a whole basement full of doors," he'd say, scornfully.) Nevertheless, it was a new audience, and they ate us up like cream. (It's always good to be from Kentucky when you're out West; they think you're authentic.)
The Saturday night of the broadcast, the tension was palpable. Garrison paced a lot then rode to the theater with us in our old Ford van. The roof sagged. When Garrison leaned his poplin-suited arms on the window, a sluice of water from the previous night's rain ran down his arm. We arrived at the theater with plenty of time for him to get the stains fixed. The World Theater was a wonderful place to play. It was old and needed some sprucing up, but the production was stunning. The sound system was the best I had ever heard. We had never heard of Garrison's "Tales of Lake Woebegone," but I stood backstage listening to him and thought of ways I could get the program to Cincinnati.
We did about six songs. I'm sorry I can't remember what they were. We returned to the coffee house for another set with the Swedish Independence Day Band. We sang "Fox on the Run" together. Then the music started flowing, and we could all feel that flow, that being in the moment, which is what keeps you going through 16-hour road trips and no sleep.
In no time, we were laughing and having a wonderful time with the audience. They liked us. They really did.
CONTACT KATIE LAUR: [email protected]. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.