By Dave Simpson, columnist
“It’s been a too long time with no peace of mind, and I’m ready for the times to get better.”
Written by Allen Reynolds, performed by Crystal Gayle.
It was November of 1994 when I unwrapped a couple 60-minute tape cassettes and recorded my first Saturday night performance of “Prairie Home Companion.”
They were at the Oscar Meyer Theater in Madison, Wis., and they had an excellent band from Milwaukee that lit the place up. “The News from Lake Wobegon” was funny and poignant and charming in the way only Garrison Keillor – the storyteller of our times – could hold an audience in his spell.
I would go on to tape the program most Saturday nights for the next 12 years, storing them in plastic cabinets with drawers.
Over the years I would get out a selection of tapes whenever we were headed out on long car trips, driving from Illinois to Wyoming, or to grandma’s house in Wisconsin. Our kids grew up listening to “The Lives of the Cowboys,” “Guy Noir, Radio Private Eye,” and those wonderful stories from Lake Wobegon, “the town out on the edge of the prairie that time forgot.”
We laughed at a comedy bit in which private eye Guy Noir asks a Canadian Mountie his name. “Wooster, sir,” replies the Mountie, to which Noir responds, “Worcestershire.” “No, Wooster, sir,” the Mountie replies. “That’s what I said, Worcestershire!” It was like “Who’s on first?”
A show at Yellowstone Park from one Fourth of July was particularly memorable, from one of our favorite places. It ended with the eruption of Old Faithful.
We enjoyed the show so much that when it was broadcast from Peoria in May of 1999, my mother, my son and I were in the audience. It was the annual “Talent from Towns Under 2,000” show, won by an incredible young violinist from Idaho, but my favorite was a marimba band from Texas.
Seeing Keillor give the news from Lake Wobegon, standing before the packed house, without notes, and holding the silent crowd in the palm of his hand for 20 minutes, was the highlight of the evening. I can’t think of anyone in my lifetime who could tell a story like Keillor.
Over the years I hauled my stash of Prairie Home Companion tapes along with us – like lugging around heavy boxes of National Geographic Magazines – from one town in Illinois to another, then to Nebraska, and finally to Wyoming.
At one point I tried to donate them to the Veterans Administration hospital in Cheyenne, but they said they couldn’t accept them because who knows what might be on those tapes. Too bad for them.
So I finally just lugged them up to my cabin, where I break one out on summer Saturday nights, at about the same time I used to hear the show on the radio. It was a good decision, now that Keillor has retired, and was later accused of some impropriety with a female staffer. The storyteller of our time became one of the first celebrities “canceled” by the #MeToo movement, and even his reruns quickly disappeared from Public Radio.
The other night, I grabbed a tape from October 23, 1999.
As luck would have it, the musical guest was one of my favorites, Bluegrass legend Doc Watson. One of the songs he performed was written by Allen Reynolds and first performed by Crystal Gayle, and included these words:
“It’s been a too long time, with no peace of mind, and I’m ready for the times to get better.”
Just as timely today, maybe more timely, than in 1999, or 1978 when it was written. And to be sung by Doc Watson – perfection.
The News from Lake Wobegon, about folks retiring from farming and moving into town, featured a story about a kindly aunt – who secretly smoked – starting a fire smoking in an outhouse. It was put out by her nephew, in a manner “men are equipped to do,” keeping her secret.
Keillor ended with these words:
“Empires fall. Great schemes crash. Farms fail. Our lives are adrift. But kindness lasts forever. Kindness goes on forever.”
Prairie Home Companion.
What a loss.