Of all the things that come out of Garrison Keillor's gnarled root vegetable of a head, his velvety tenor singing voice may be the most surprising. The songs Keillor sings on his long-running public-radio show A Prairie Home Companion often pair commentary on current events with the comforts of his Midwestern wisdom. The ring of audiences laughing it up is the ideal accompaniment.
Keillor has also tapped into Madison music: Much-hyped local folk duo Count This Penny performed on the show last year, and the show's Jan. 26 broadcast from Overture Hall will feature Madison's Krause Family Band.
While Saturday's early evening performance is sold-out, the stage will stay lit well into the night for Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Late Show, which entices fans to "see what Garrison and friends can do when they don't have to get 'off the air' by 6:58:40 p.m. Central Time!"
Before the shows, enjoy this brief overview of Keillor's sometimes poignant and frequently bizarre relationship with music.
Most often associated with Leadbelly, or Nirvana's Unplugged session, the folk song "In The Pines" is a chilling, bitter tale of romantic betrayal. While neither Huddie Ledbetter nor Kurt Cobain sounded too pleased about "goin' where the cold winds blow," Keillor changes the lyrics into a cheerful tribute to those who rough it. In a show recorded in Duluth, Keillor warns potentially uppity out-of-towners that in northern Minnesota, "there are no vintage wines and not very much good creme brûlée." Oh, and "never make fun of the Finns."
When it comes to musical guests, Keillor seems to have his pick of Americana luminaries young and old. Still, it's hard to imagine a more prestigious accompanist than Chet Atkins, whose fingerpicked guitar style was both graceful and intimidatingly swift. And it's a good thing Atkins is on hand in this performance. Try as he might to bring across this cheerful Christmas ditty, Keillor just comes off as extremely stiff and uneasy. Just skip ahead to about 1:50 to see Atkins rip through a solo despite Keillor lingering in his personal space.
While most commonly associated with Lutherans, Keillor is apparently well-versed in the ways of other Protestant sects. His shuffling "Methodist Blues" is at once a send-up of religious repression and a history lesson: "We were founded by John Wesley, not Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley." But apparently the takeaway is that Methodists have less fun than the rest of the faithful: "The organ is soupy, the pastor is bland."
There's inherent humor in a senior citizen commenting on the technological ways of the young, and Keillor seems to get that he'll come off as slightly clueless in this social-media lament. The narrator of "Unfriended" documents his slide into Facebook obsession. Keillor plays to a hilt just how slighted it he feels when his friend list begins to dwindle: "How could you do it, just delete my name?/I'm not a left-winger, or an old flame." And in a less arch turn of phrase, he tells his betrayers, "boogers on you."
For the record, Keillor does use his voice for more than clowning around. He's decent at singing harmony, as he demonstrates when he accompanies singer-songwriter Heather Masse on that most tender of Rolling Stones songs, "Wild Horses." Prairie Home's house musicians demonstrate their prowess here by tactfully changing the song's rhythm to a melancholy snare-drum shuffle, sweetly padded with organ and accordion.