For the past four decades, weekly radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion” (“PHC”) has had an undeniable staying power in Chicago. Ever since the St. Paul-based show’s debuted in 1974, “PHC” has exposed listeners to music, comedy, and spoken word performers from across the country. Many have made it a weekly tradition to tune in for that culture lesson and to hear host Garrison Keillor’s unique analysis. Some even caught the live broadcast of the show in person when it toured.
‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ featuring Chris Thile
WITH: Andrew Bird, Laura Marling and Beth Stelling
When: 4:45 p.m. Jan. 14
Where: Symphony Center,220 S. Michigan
When the show returns to Chicago Jan. 14, it’ll continue that tradition but with a few new wrinkles — including new host Chris Thile. Keillor, who stepped down as host last year, handpicked Thile to be his successor.
Thile is a 35-year-old musician/songwriter known for his many prolific musical projects including being a member of the popular touring group the Punch Brothers. Working on the show is something he’s dreamed of ever since he was a kid growing up in southern California.
“I’m having so much fun,” Thile says. “[The show] influenced me so much as a young musician and performer and as a young person. Garrison’s observations about life have been so foundational. … He’s navigated so many of us through so many difficult periods of American life over the past 40 years. … When I was in the car and it was public radio and I heard Garrison’s voice, it was just, ‘Oh man, I think I may have to stay in the car for a couple hours!’”
He knows he has some big shoes to fill but says he’s grown more comfortable with each show he’s hosted.
“Ever since Garrison called me two years ago, I’ve been kind of visualizing how this would go and how I would want to do it and what I wanted it to sound like,” he says. “It’s been a fairly smooth transition from what was swirling around in my head to what was actually coming out into the airwaves.”
One big reason it’s worked so well is Keillor’s openness to give Thile free rein with the show. Keillor also has stayed on as show producer and has helped Thile transition to host.
“Garrison has been a masterful coach for me over these last two years, basically stepping back as we got closer to the show. To the point where he’s there to advise me when I want advice,” Thile says. “But as far as what to do, he said long ago ‘Chris, you’re just going to have to figure out what it is that you feel like doing on this show, and I can’t tell you what to do and shouldn’t tell you what to do.’”
“Which was amazing to hear from this person that has handled the responsibilities of host and main content creator so graciously for so long. … His foresight in stepping back enough to where I am able to get the space to imagine how the show should sound with me at its helm, that’s been invaluable. I’m very grateful for Garrison, both for his steady and calming influence.”
Thile muses the show now reflects that the host is a 35-year-old instead of a 73-year-old. While Keillor’s influence still comes through, he’s finding more of his own voice with each show. While he enjoys both the music and spoken word aspects of the show, he feels his version of the show is more musically oriented.
“I think the show is a little more freewheeling, musically speaking, that just about anything could happen,” Thile says. “The music could come from any cultural aesthetic. It’s maybe not as tied to the American folk traditions. Though in the last analysis, Garrison wasn’t too tied to that either.”
Thile’s admits his experience touring as a musician since he was 18 has made the transition easier. He feels right at home, especially with this current tour. The Symphony Center is one of Thile’s favorite venues to play and he specifically requested to bring the show to the venue. He’s also got something very special in mind for the song of the week.
“I imagine that the song of week will be Cubs-related in one way or another,” he says, admitting he’ sa big fan of the team. “I know they’re up [to] their eyeballs in Cubs celebrations but I can’t resist throwing my hat into the ring, Cubs celebration-wise.”
Joshua Miller is a local freelance writer.