A Bit of History and Some Fun Facts

In the summer of 1973, thinking this was something a radio guy should do someday, I rode the train to Nashville with my friend Don McNeil from the softball team to see the Saturday night broadcast of The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, which was completely sold out that night so we stood in the parking lot behind the hall and listened to it on WSM from the radios in nearby pickup trucks. There was a whole crowd of us out there. We got to see Loretta Lynn’s tour bus pull up in the alley and she herself step out and walk by in glittering white gown, long black hair, and the crowd parted for her, nobody asked for an autograph, a few people said quietly “Hey, Loretta,” and she smiled and picked up her skirts and went around back to the stage door. The Ryman wasn’t air-conditioned and the windows were wide open, and when we ducked down behind a low stone wall we could see the lower halves of performers on stage, Dolly Parton and Roy Acuff and Bashful Brother Oswald, and almost all of Stonewall Jackson. My hero Marty Robbins sat mugging at the piano and sang “Love Me,” grinning on the falsetto part in the chorus, and then jumped up and did “El Paso,” strumming a little Spanish guitar up on his shoulder. Listening to the music from car radios in the parking lot surrounded by reverent fans on a hot summer night, I felt happy, excited, even exalted. I thought, “I’d like to do that someday.”

The next spring I went back to Nashville and wrote a piece about the Opry for The New Yorker. Roger Angell handed me over to a fact editor, Bill Whitworth, knowing Bill is from Little Rock and knows country music, and Bill at the time was the trusted deputy of William Shawn, the editor, and so the assignment was made, though Mr. Shawn’s interest in country music was slight at best. On this daisy chain of connections my whole career hangs. If Roger had handed me to an editor from Connecticut, or if Whit- worth had fallen out of favor with Shawn, or if Shawn had mentioned the Opry to Lillian Ross and she said, “You’re out of your mind,” I’d be wearing a TSA badge and patting down men with suspicious pants at the airport.

I went to the Friday night show and skipped the Saturday night because Richard M. Nixon would be there, trying to slip the bonds of Watergate, and I didn’t care to write about him. I sat in the balcony of the Ryman and watched the sequined ladies with big hair, men in gaudy suits, commercials for chewing tobacco and pork sausage and self-rising Martha White flour and Goo Goo Clusters, Cousin Minnie Pearl (I’m just so proud to be here!), the red-barn backdrop, the haze of cigarette smoke, the fans and their flash cameras, the announcer in his funeral suit, and I resolved to go home and start up a Saturday night show of my own. I wrote the piece, Bill Whitworth shepherded it into print between ads for Chanel No. 5 and Cartier diamonds and Cricketeer yacht wear, and I went up the stairs to Bill Kling’s office at KSJN to talk.

Kling kept meetings short. He had a low tolerance for the prefaces and digressions by which people show they have a liberal arts education. He was a true believer in radio, listened to it religiously, and in public radio, surrounded by malcontents, he got excited by good ideas. I proposed the show and he told me to go right ahead. Saturday at 5 p.m., between the Met Opera and the New York Philharmonic broadcasts. He called in Margaret Moos, who worked upstairs in publicity, and asked her to produce it. “Have fun,” he said. It was a ten-minute conversation. Saturday evening was a dead zone in radio, but I was in a sinking marriage and had nothing to lose.  (That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life)

The Facts (with a grain of salt-we are fiction writers after all)


July 6, 1974 – July 2, 2016

1557 Broadcasts

First National Live Broadcast carried on NPR’s Folk Festival USA – Feb 17, 1979

First Regularly Scheduled National Broadcast – May 3, 1980

Approximately 365 different venues

Approximately 10,000+ performers

Approximately 4 million listeners, 690 public radio stations

Approximately 3,400,000 Theater Audience Members

A Prairie Home Companion: Benefit for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (1979)

The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra: Benefit for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (1994)


TV broadcasts:

World Theater Grand Opening (1986)

A Prairie Home Companion -Disney (18 shows February through June 1987)

A Prairie Home Companion 2nd Annual Farewell – Disney – Radio City Music Hall (1988)

A Pretty Good Night at Carnegie Hall  – Disney- (1989)

Great Performances – A Prairie Home Companion from Tanglewood (2006)

Great Performances – Garrison Keillor, A New Year’s Eve Special (2006)


Movie Theater Presentations:

2 Cinecasts presented by Fathom Events: Radio show video livestreamed nationally to movie (2010)

A Prairie Home Companion film directed by Robert Altman(May 2006)


Fan weekends:

PHC Hymn Sing at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN (1992)

F.Scott Fitzgerald 100th Anniversary (1996)

Lake Wobegon Ice Fishing Weekend – St. Paul (2002)

Lake Wobegon Ice Fishing Weekend – Bemidji (2011)

A Prairie Home Companion 40th Anniversary – Macalester College – St. Paul (2014)


13 Talent shows (1995 – 2012)

13 Joke shows (1996 – 2014)

Over 3000 original lyric estimates (Im going with an average of 3 per show)

Over 8000 Personal Greetings read since 1978


Acclaimed guests:  Bob and Ray, Bobby McFerrin, Taj Mahal, Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, Yo Yo Ma, Minnie Pearl, Chet Atkins, The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Greg Brown, Jean Redpath, Carl Perkins, Ray Stevens, The Judds, Vince Gill, Allison Janney, Lynn Thigpen, Alison Krauss, Brad Paisley, The Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John C. Reilly, John Lithgow, Martin Sheen, Elvis Costello, Reneé, Fleming, Marilyn Horne, Nathan Gunn, Dixie Carter, James Earl Jones, Roger Miller, Carole King, Debra Monk, Sara Bareilles, Joshua Bell, Tom Brokaw, Harry Smith, Charles Kurault, Brandi Carlile, Roseanne Cash, Rosemary Clooney, Kristin Chenoweth, Victoria Clark, Joel Grey, Harry Connick Jr., Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow, Heart, Emmanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Dr. John, Linda Ronstadt, Al Franken, James Galway, Nanci Griffith, Arlo Guthrie, Kathy Mattea, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Itzhak Perlman, Sydney Pollack, Bonnie Raitt, Leon Redbone

House Bands: Powdermilk Biscuit Band, New Prairie Ramblers, Butch Thompson Trio, The Coffee Club Orchestra, Rich Dworsky and The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, Rich Dworsky and the House Band

Choirs that appeared: Angelica Cantati Choir, Beloit Memorial High School Choir, Bonai Cantores, Cantus, Cedar Lake Seven, Central Moravian Church Choir, Chanticleer, Choral Arts Ensemble, Classen School of Advanced Studies Choir, Cornell University Glee Club, Dale Warland Singers, Durango Children’s Chorale, Essex Children’s Choir, First Presbyterian Church Choir of Atlanta, Goshen College Chamber Choir, Gregg Smith Singers, Hamline University Capella Choir, House of Hope Presbyterian Church Choir School, Kamehameha H.S. Glee Club, The King’s Singers, Macalester Concert Choir, Minnesota Boy Choir, Minnesota Opera Chorus, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Northfield Youth Choir, St. John’s Boy Choir, St. Juliana Choir, St. Malachi’s Choir, St. Olaf Concert Choir, Surma, The Appalachian Association of Sacred Harp Singers, The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, The Bulgarian State Radio and TV Female Vocal Choir, The College of St. Catherine Women’s Choir, Concordia College Choir, The Fóstbræōur Male Choir,The Russian Chamber Chorus of New York, The Tudor Choir, University of Minnesota Morris Concert Choir, Ukranian Choir, University of Minnesota Minneapolis Concert Choir, Kitka, VocalEssence, Waldorf College Choir, Women’s Vocal Ensemble of St. Olaf, Anchorage Community Chorus, Buffalo Philharmonic Chamber Chorus, Bulgarian National Folk Ensemble, Purdue Glee Club, Ypsilanti Chamber Chorus, Yale Russian Chorus

International Broadcasts: Iceland, Ireland, Germany, Scotland, England, Mexico, Canada

Heard internationally via the Armed Forces Network and America One

Lake Wobegon Trail facts:

Dedicated in 1998

65 miles long

Waite Parke, St. Joseph, Avon, Albany, Holdingford, Bowlus, Freeport, Melrose, Sauk Centre, West Union, Osakis


Unusual acts:

Hypnotized Chicken

Murray the Sea Lion

Harley Refsal, the woodcarver

Avner the Eccentric

Marching Bands

Mouth Sound Participants

Bagpipers, Yodelers, Whistlers

Tap dancers, Flat foot dancers, Polka dancers, Belly dancer, Polka dancers, Arthur Murray dancers


SFX props (Tom Keith’s collection)

Wingtips for footsteps

Box of cornstarch sounds like walking in snow

Styrofoam plates sounds like breaking wood

Old-fashioned telephone

Roller skate across typewriter keys to sound like elevator door opening

Wooden legs to sound like people marching

Wood squeaker

Doorbells – buzz or chime

Coconut shells in small gravel

Glass breaking cage

Crash box (wood box with tin cans)


Tour names:

Junior Woodchuck Tour (1976)

Death March to the Prairie (1977)

Spaghetti Transmission Tour (1978)

Thanks Anyway Tour (1980)

Unlikely Tour (1982)

Definitely Last Motor Home Tour (1982)

Tour de Force Tour (1983)

Second Annual Farewell Tour (1988)

Third Annual Farewell Tour (1989)

Fourth Annual Farewell Tour (1990

Moonshine Tour (1994)

Hopeful Gospel Tour

Rhubarb Tour (2003, 2005, 2008)

Summer Love Tour (2010, 2011)

Radio Romance Tour (2013)

America the Beautiful Tour (2015)

Love and Comedy Tour (2017)


11 Sold out cruises (Alaska, Norway, St. Lawrence Seaway, Caribbean, Spain/Portugal, Spain/France/Italy, Baltic Sea)


Interesting venues:

Ramsey Arts and Science Culture Garden, High Schools, College Auditoriums and Chapels, Churches, State Fairs, Oklahoma City Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Ball field in Lanesboro, MN, Open Field in Avon, MN, Shakespeare Festival, Old Faithful Lodge, Mark Twain Memorial House, Willa Cather’s Home, New York Public Library, Gibbon Ballroom (MN), Glenwood Ballroom (MN), The Surf  Ballroom (MN), Botanical Gardens, Wineries


Awards and proclamations :

Grammy award, ACE, George Foster Peabody, National Humanities Medal, Audie Awards, Election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters

Numerous Keys to the city and Proclamation Days

Letters from Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama