Keillor says he's done after next season's 'Prairie Home'

Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor performs during "A Prairie Home Companion" at The Fox Theatre on Saturday, May 17, 2014 in Atlanta.
Dan Harr | Invision | AP 2014

Updated: July 22, 7:46 a.m. | Posted: July 20, 3:49 p.m.

Garrison Keillor, creator and longtime host of the popular "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, says he means it this time: He's retiring.

In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Keillor said he plans to step down as host after next season, following four decades of entertaining listeners with his baritone voice and folksy comedy sketches about Lake Wobegon, his mythical Minnesota hometown "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

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The show is heard by 4 million listeners nationwide on nearly 700 public radio stations each week. Keillor also takes summer bus tours for live shows, and his 30-city "America the Beautiful" cross-country tour, billed as his farewell tour, starts next week.

"I have a lot of other things that I want to do. I mean, nobody retires anymore. Writers never retire. But this is my last season. This tour this summer is the farewell tour," the 72-year-old Keillor said, laughing and joking as he sat in his book-lined office in St. Paul wearing his signature red socks.

Keillor said he tapped musician Chris Thile of the bands Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek to succeed him full time as host in September 2016, following guest-hosting spots. He said Thile — a mandolin whiz — will help return "Prairie Home" to its roots as a music show.

Thile, now 34, was 15 when he made his first appearance on the show in 1996. In a statement Monday, Thile said he and Keillor "have lengthily discussed the future of the show with me as host and agree that we should give it a go. There are, of course, plenty of details to iron out, but I'm very excited!"

Keillor will end his tenure as host with performances at some of his favorite outdoor venues, including Wolf Trap near Washington, D.C., Ravinia near Chicago and Tanglewood in Massachusetts, according to "A Prairie Home Companion" spokesman David O'Neill. The location of Keillor's final show as host, in July 2016, has not been determined yet, O'Neill said.

The Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle first reported last month on Keillor's plans to "transition" out of the show. But given Keillor's history — he talked about retiring when he turned 70 in 2013 — many media outlets were cautious. The Minneapolis Star Tribune noted Keillor had "announced an upcoming retirement so many times that he could be called the Brett Favre of broadcast radio."

He did leave the airwaves briefly in the 1980s to move to Denmark, but returned to broadcasting in New York two years later with "American Radio Company of the Air." He finally returned to St. Paul — and "A Prairie Home Companion" — in 1992.

Keillor insisted Monday that his retirement decision is solid. He said he plans to stay on as executive producer, but only "an admirer" and "a gray eminence" of the on-air show, which he said will keep its Midwestern focus.

"I'm perfectly willing to do whatever needs to be done. I can certainly come on the show as a guest, you know, I can do the warm-up. I can stand in the wings and wind up microphone cord," Keillor said.

Keillor said that means retiring his weekly monologue "News from Lake Wobegon," a homey recounting of the doings of Norwegian bachelor farmers and other Lake Wobegon residents, along with his sketches about hard-boiled detective Guy Noir and hapless modern-day cowboys Dusty and Lefty.

As for retirement, Keillor has a few plans, including traveling.

"I've been everywhere, and I've seen very little. I've seen a lot of hotels, a lot of airports, I've seen the backseats of cabs and I've seen back stages of theaters," he said. "I go to all these wonderful places and I never walk around and I never see things. Because I'm working."

Keillor also said he would like to make another movie. A movie version of "A Prairie Home Companion" hit theaters in 2006 to critical acclaim and modest box-office success. Keillor said he has finished writing a Lake Wobegon screenplay, about a young man who returns for his father's funeral and reconnects with a high school girlfriend.

"It's got a funeral, it's got a big Fourth of July parade, and it's got, you know, two people taking each other's clothes off," he said. "Everything we look for in a movie."