Author: Evans, Bill

Bill’s Excellent Adventure on A Prairie Home Companion

I was driving to the Pacific Northwest with a SUV packed full of banjos when the email came in: if I still had the weekend available, would I like to play on A Prairie Home Companion? There are times in a musician’s career when spontaneous jumping up and down is in order but this would have been a bit difficult to do in the car on this occasion, as I was speeding north for the Oregon border. I had to wait until my first pit stop some 100 miles down the road for that kind of celebration but by that time, the urge for vertical celebration had surrendered itself to a very wide ear-to-ear smile. I’m sure that the I-5 convenience store attendant wondered how anyone could be this happy with just a Diet Coke, some chocolate chip cookies and a full tank of gas.

Less than two weeks later on a Thursday night, I was in my room at the finest hotel in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, where it was relatively warm (temperatures in the 20’s) with some light snow on the way (and snow was already on the ground, but no one was complaining because it was warm by Minnesota winter standards). The Friday schedule called for a run through of possible tunes midday with the band, followed by a full cast rehearsal of the first draft of the skits beginning in the mid-afternoon. Folks in the know said it was unusual to have this “extra” day of rehearsal. Often, the entire show gets pulled together just on Saturday. I learned to not act surprised upon hearing news such as this – I immediately realized that part of being on A Prairie Home Companion was to keep my panic to myself.

It was good news to hear that this particular show had a banjo theme. Joe Newberry, the great North Carolina clawhammer player and Noam Pikelny, the not-so-enfant-but-still-massively terrible of progressive banjo, were joining me, along with country music historian Bill C. Malone, whom I have known since my days at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. I was there to fill in some of the stylistic and historical gaps, playing examples of the 19th and early 20th century styles that I feature in my solo concerts. I also learned that Joe, Noam and I would likely get the chance to play a few numbers together (“to be decided later” – I heard this phrase a lot over the few days I was in Minnesota). I was also asked to “bring as many banjos as possible.” I brought four for this occasion – my 19th century Boucher minstrel replica, two open back banjos set up for classic-style playing (one for the show and another as a backup in case of a banjo malfunction, which was a good thing as I indeed experienced banjo tune problems in the changed humidity of the Upper Midwest) and a bluegrass banjo.

On Thursday night, I had already run through one song, “A Ragtime Episode” by Paul Eno from 1908 with musical director Rich Dworsky. Rich was in his music studio across town and I was in my hotel room but thanks to modern technology, we arranged the piece via a video call, with Rich listening to one of my YouTube performances on his desktop computer, quickly writing out the chord progression and his accompaniment in real time as the piece progressed, checking with me on his choices via FaceTime as he played. Pretty amazing!

On Friday afternoon, Garrison Keillor arrived at the Fitzgerald Theater just a short while after Joe, Noam and I, along with country singer Suzy Bogguss, had finished rehearsing our numbers with the band. He brought with him the rough drafts of two skits and Joe, Noam and I learned that we had speaking parts in one skit (“The Lives of the Cowboys”) and would provide background music for another (“Guy Noir, Private Eye”). This was great news – providing something else to focus my mind on, other than my own featured musical numbers.
The actors found their familiar places on stage at their microphones, to the right of Garrison, and we read through these first drafts, literally for the first time, laughing as we experienced the punch lines together for the first time. Garrison and the show’s director Dan Rowles would make recommendations as we proceeded and I was instructed to give special emphasis to one of my speaking lines, which proved to be the key to understanding the entire sketch. A heavy burden! “Don’t screw up,” I kept telling myself!

The Friday rehearsal was followed by a second Saturday morning rehearsal in which we could all see the show quickly taking shape. Garrison and Dan had spent some time since Friday’s first run-through thinking about the overall structure of the show and these latest sketch drafts were funnier and hit home more powerfully (even though I totally messed up my punch line in the Saturday run through!). It was decided that Bill Malone would talk with Garrison about banjo history, and these conversations would set up the solo performances by Joe, Noam and me. Garrison himself decided on what numbers we would play together (“Soldier’s Joy” and “Arkansas Traveler”) and with Suzy Bogguss (“Old Dan Tucker” and “My Dixie Darling”), arranging it all as we played, changing the arrangements as we then played some more, which lead to more changes until we had a final shape and form for each piece.

The sequencing of events in the two hour show was not decided until shortly before air time and changes were made during the show’s broadcast – a few songs and short sketches were scratched and Noam decided at the last minute to change one of his tunes, as technical assistants rushed around backstage to make sure we were all literally on the same page.

The overall atmosphere was one of controlled but very creative chaos with everyone intensely dedicated to making the broadcast a success. I was amazed to hear that the crew averages 36 live shows a year, not counting the touring shows which, while sometimes not broadcast, nevertheless have totally new content with each performance.

You can listen to the entire February 23rd show online at A Prairie Home Companion’s homepage at Click on the “Archive” link at the top of the page and look for the February 23rd performance. You’ll also find video of several segments on the site, including the “Guy Noir” sketch and a banjo trio performance of “Arkansas Traveler.”

I still feel like jumping up and down, by the way.

All the best,
Bill Evans
Posted:  3/22/2013

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