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As a native Midwesterner, I've never been comfortable with Prairie Home Companion. To me, it gave an overly rosy and simplistic look at a very complex region. I found the characters clownish, the music simplistic, and the overall tone smarmy. As the Times article noted, listening to it was like stepping into an all-year Christmas store--although in my case, it was like listening to it in a Christmas store while getting a root canal.
The first time I heard the show was back in 1982. I just started my master's degree at UW-Milwaukee, and one of my fellow graduate students, who was from Minnesota, was a fan of the show. One Saturday, early in the Fall Semester, he and his wife invited me over to their flat near campus to help them with a project. They turned on Prairie Home Companion and we listened as we worked. The love they had for the show was cult-like and their faces took on the look of true believers. They had mugs, hats, and t-shirts they purchased when they saw the show live in St. Paul. When the music segments came on the radio, they danced across their flat and encouraged me to jump in. I sat sullen and sipped my beer as the punk I was. My jaw dropped as I saw a very intelligent couple buy into an entirely unreal and cartoonish version of the Midwest. I did not want to get recruited to the strange apple cinnamon scented cult.
Several years later, I was invited for the first time to a friend's apartment in Tampa for a Saturday evening dinner party. To my horror, when we all arrived, she wanted everyone to listen to Prairie Home Companion before dinner. I was the only Midwesterner in the room and everyone wanted me to say words that sounded Midwestern donchaknow. The stereotype of simple living Midwest life was deep in the consciousness of the dinner guests. I tried to engage them in a conversation about the complexities of the region, but they were not having it. They saw the entirety of the place that was rosemaled in simple patterns and modest colors. They didn't see the complexities that led to industrial decline, Ferguson, and the loss of the family farm. They also didn't want to see the incredible universities, the diversity, the emerging economic strengths, and the strikingly different environments. They didn't want a menu of coffee. They wanted their coffee one way with lots of sugar and whitener.
Of course, Prairie Home Companion is mainly only known within the NPR crowd. University types love NPR and that dinner party is just one of many instances in which non-Midwesterners in my world tell me that they love the show after hearing I am from Wisconsin. I sometimes scratch my head as non-Midwesterners with PhDs who work on very complex issues get that cult like look of my graduate student friends when they talk about their love for the show.
Several years after this dinner party, I was in Minnesota visiting some friends in the Boundary Waters region when I ran into Garrison Keillor. He was sitting on a bench writing away on a notepad at a resort where we stopped to have dinner. As a writer myself, I didn't bother him as one could tell that he was deeply engaged with his work. He looked so happy in that setting--the dark green pines behind him and one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes nearby. Perhaps he didn't create a world around my Midwest, but around his imagination of the Midwest. Maybe my expectations were too high for the show.
Yet I cannot escape the lingering feeling that Prairie Home Companion sucked too much oxygen from the Midwestern creative zeitgeist. How could one express what it meant to be Midwestern when most saw it as the candy corny Prairie Home Companion? Nevertheless, congratulations to Garrison Keillor and the Prairie Home Companion folks for a very long blueberry cobbler run. I may not have loved the show, but many adored it donchaknow.