I have a confession. I didn't grow up listening to the radio. I imagined I was like most young people in that way, but over the last couple of weeks, I've learned that's not the case. When I've mentioned plans to attend an evening with Garrison Keillor, the reaction has been nearly unanimous: "Oh man, I listened to him with my Dad when I was a kid!" Each of my partners in conversation recoiled in shock and horror when I said that I only had a vague idea of who Keillor is -- wasn't there a Robert Altman movie called "A Prairie Home Companion"? That's how I showed up to Bass Hall on Thursday night with a shameful awareness that I had missed out on an essential part of the American upbringing, and that I was about to spend two hours with an American icon I knew next to nothing about, save that he's an icon.
The crowd at Bass Hall was comprised mostly of people in their golden years. (All of those twenty-something Garrison Keillor fans I talked to failed to buy tickets, apparently!) When the 7:30 p.m. start time arrived, 72-year-old Keillor walked onstage, sporting a nice suit, a pair of comfy-looking sneakers and an impressive mop of gray hair. Already I was reminded of the grandfather I never had, who shows up right at the appointed time because "it said 7:30 on the invitation didn't it?" There was no pomp and circumstance, and Keillor's unpretentiousness was refreshing. He began by singing a comical, religious ditty. I was surprised by his remarkably beautiful voice and it set the tone for the evening. From there, Keillor began weaving an entrancing tapestry of stories and jokes and songs. As he worked, he meandered around the stage, looking as relaxed as if you'd caught him thinking aloud in his own living room. A simple joke ("What did the Catholic say to the Baptist?") flowed seamlessly and artfully into a story about fishing in Lake Wobegone with his uncle at 3 a.m., which then evolved into him leading the audience in song. At one point, he took the audience through all six verses of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The sound of disparate voices joining together to sing that song -- in 2014, no less -- gave me chills. I chimed in weakly during the "glory, glory, hallelujah!" parts but was otherwise lost. In that moment, I stared right into the generational gap and found my side to be the one lacking. After nearly two hours of masterful storytelling, in which he touched on subjects as diverse as religion, marriage, fatherhood and death, Keillor ended with heartfelt advice to cheer up, and be kind to others. I was completely captivated by Keillor throughout his performance, and I cannot tell you the last time I enjoyed an evening so devoid of vulgarity. Even when discussing the risqué, he was always poignant and educational and funny. For a couple of hours, I was transported to a time when entertainment was held to a higher standard -- a time when it was expected to teach us something about ourselves and about how to be with each other. Garrison Keillor may not be a new player, but he has a new fan in me, and tomorrow I'll be tuning in to the radio.