Keillor benches himself for one 'Prairie Home'

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 6, 2011 - 9:30 PM

After 37 years, he'll let someone else host his show on Jan. 15, but he'll deliver "News from Lake Wobegon."

Unlike Brett Favre, Garrison Keillor is ending his iron-man streak voluntarily. On Jan. 15, "A Prairie Home Companion" will have its first planned guest host in 1,271 shows.

Fiddler-singer Sara Watkins, who performed 25 shows with Keillor last summer, will be the host, singing the opening theme song and running the show heard by 4 million people via 590 public radio stations. Of course, Keillor, the domineering PHC player that he is, won't spend the entire two hours on the sidelines at the Fitzgerald Theater. He'll simply be a guest on his own show, delivering his famous "News from Lake Wobegon" monologue and performing in some sketches.

"I'm benching myself so I can see the show from the sidelines," Keillor said Thursday.

Although he denies that this is a tryout for Watkins, it could be the first sign that Keillor, 68, is following up on his 2010 promise to find a host to replace him.

"I haven't set a date," he said Thursday. "I've told my colleagues on the show and people at American Public Media [the show's distributor] that I really want the show to continue. But everybody comes to the end probably sooner than you think you're going to. I have no interest in trying to outlast myself. I'll be 70 in 2012. I'm not sure that a person ought to be doing this much beyond 70, to be perfectly frank with you."

He would like a new host who is young, adventurous and a musician. "I don't think the storytelling aspect of the show is as crucial" as musical prowess, he said.

Watkins, 29, would seem to fit that description. Said Keillor: "If she were a candidate, she'd be a good one because she has very broad taste and a big swatch of ability." But he offered a caveat: "Sara is a San Diegan and I don't think she's interested in moving to Minnesota. She hasn't said she is."

Watkins, who grew up in Vista, Calif., is best known for her work with Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning progressive bluegrass group that is on hiatus. In 2009, she released her self-titled solo debut, produced by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame. She is scheduled to play fiddle with the Decemberists, a popular indie-rock band, on their 2011 tour. Watkins did choose the musical guests for the Jan. 15 "Prairie Home" -- banjo ace Abigail Washburn and singer-songwriter Tom Brousseau -- but Keillor will be writing the show as usual.

Keillor has missed two PHC broadcasts -- Show No. 2, back in 1974, when WCCO Radio's Bob DeHaven hosted, and one in the late 1970s due to illness, forcing Adam Granger, a charter member of the show's Powdermilk Biscuit Band, to host as an unplanned pinch-hitter.

"When you've got a part-time job, you don't want to be absent," Keillor said. "Sick leave is not part of the contract."

Saying he has no plans for other guest hosts this season, Keillor does not have a list of candidates and hasn't started a search. "I don't know how," he said, "probably because I don't understand 'A Prairie Home Companion' myself and what its listeners want and what sort of host they'd choose if they could choose."

Does he have a timetable for finding a replacement?

"I can't tell you that," he said.

Well, at least he sounds like Favre.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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