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Article Title: Guest Writer: Patti Casey Mixes It Up With Garrison KeillorEdition: April 2002
by Patti Casey Editor note: Singer and songwriter Patti Casey who lives in nearby North Duxbury is a Vermont native with Irish roots. Last year at about this time Casey appeared on the public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" and won third prize. She wrote about being chosen as a finalist in the "Talent From Towns Under Two Thousand Contest," about arriving in Minneapolis and about all the excitement of getting ready to perform to a radio audience of three million people. -- end of editor note
Mud season can get to me. Last year around this time I was lucky enough to get away and found myself a tiny cabin along the banks of a murky finger of the Everglades. It was there I learned by way of the miracle of a cell phone (which I admit still gives me a thrill to use -- I feel just like Scully from the television show The X Files) that Minnesota Public Radio's A Prairie Home Companion had chosen me to compete in their 2001 Talent From Towns Under Two Thousand Contest. The cell phone in the tiny cabin allowed my unabashed and, thankfully private, display of excitement.
A National Talent ContestThe contest is a yearly talent show in April that features six contestants from divergent genres of music. Last year Prairie Home Companion received well over 700 entrants, and this dizzying thought immediately paralyzed me with self-doubt. Never mind, I thought, I'm going. This is the chance of a lifetime, if for no other reason than to find out if Garrison Keillor talks like that in real life (he does). From the Everglades, I spoke with the producers and arranged to bring along two musical accompanists, my band mate and fiddler extraordinaire, David Gusakov from Bristol, and Canadian pieds (foot-tapping) musician Dana Whittle. The travel plans were in place before I left for home; the efficiency of the Prairie Home Companion folks was phenomenal.
It's true -- people in the Midwest are really nice. Maybe in today's world of loudmouth talk shows and biting commentary and cynicism, nice is considered boring. I, however, loved the warmth and shy curiosity of the people I met there, from the hotel staff at the elegant Saint Paul Hotel to the people at the radio station to the waitress at the walleye restaurant. From the moment we arrived, we were treated like friends.
Rehearsing for the ShowWhisked back and forth between hotel and radio station in a van, we were on a well-oiled schedule from the outset. Nice though they were, the Prairie Home Companion staffers managed to get all of us nervous and somewhat star-struck amateurs through fast-paced rehearsals with that aforementioned efficiency, while remaining sensitive to our artist sensibilities. But, if it didn't jive with the stopwatch, it got cut. Nicely, but it still got cut.
The Minnesota Public Radio studios are beautiful. We arrived for a rehearsal with the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band the day before the show, and were ushered into a large, comfortable studio where the band was set up. I fell dumb with awe at seeing the guys I listen to every week. Guitarist Pat Donohue (who actually accompanied me on mandolin, though he'd never played one before that time -- that tells you something of the caliber of musicianship of these guys), drummer Arnie Kinsella, bassist Gary Hart Raynor, pianist and musical director Rich Dworsky, and violinist Andy Stein; they were all there. Though world-famous all of them, they were humble and easy to get along with; they were really just guys. I guess supreme musicianship makes it so you don't have to impress anybody. And when we all started playing the song I had written and would perform on the show the next day, "Down From Canada," I had a shivery moment of internal satisfaction that I can't really describe. I felt like a queen.
And so came the big day, Saturday, April 21, 2001. Garrison Keillor he showed up two hours late for rehearsal the day of the show and all the staff had these slightly exasperated but knowing looks on their faces. He always shows up late, they seemed to say, but of course, no one would say that. There was, however, a palpable change in the air when he entered the building. I knew he had arrived several minutes before I saw his tall, hunched silhouette approach from his dressing room. In a later conversation with him at a reception for us contestants and the show regulars, I found him to be an intense and surprisingly shy person. He is remarkably eloquent, but at times I would speak and it was as if he hadn't heard me. He might as easily ignore my side of the conversation as turn on it with savage interest. He is a creative genius, and he really does deliver those delicious monologues with no notes, standing in the spotlight holding his microphone, arms stretched wide and eyes closed. He writes them the morning of the show, he told me. I've never seen anyone with his gift for timing of delivery and mastery of pace.
Rehearsal for Prairie Home Companion is basically a few hours of barely controlled pandemonium that takes place on the stage of the beautiful old Fitzgerald Theater. Sue Scott and Tim Russell get handed scripts when Garrison arrives, as does sound-effects man Tom Keith; the band is set up and going over all the little bits and pieces of musical glue that hold the show together, so there's the music stopping and starting and the skits being worked over and producers running back and forth with stopwatches and clipboards. We contestants who could sit still sat in the audience seats and watched the show regulars practice the skits, integrate them with the music, make mistakes and start over, refine characters, and banter among themselves. And all this time they appeared unflappable.
The backdrop on the stage is a cozy porch on the front of a Mayberry-like house, and there are chairs set up for some lucky audience members right on the stage. There were people outside waiting in line to get in to the 5 p.m. show from mid-morning.
Waiting for the Show, Feeling on EdgeFive o'clock loomed like the only experience I can compare it with: going into labor. I knew it was inevitable, I was terrified, and I wanted it to come more than anything. And when it did, I was not only nervous for myself and the other contestants, but I was naively quite certain Garrison and his crew weren't ready either. Only moments before the show they were still mumbling over scripts and hollering questions and directions to the band. But at 5 o'clock sharp the Powdermilk Biscuit banner lowered over the stage and the familiar strains of "Oh, hear that old piano, from down the avenue" filled the hall. I could feel the contractions start.
We grown-up contestants (of which there were four acts, one of those being another Vermont group, the incomparable celestial Sirens from Lincoln) had been wryly informed by some of the Prairie Home Companion staff that the grown-ups never win. What audience would vote out an 8-year-old Harry Potter look-alike in a little suit and tie who padded out onto the stage and took two minutes to screw the squeaky piano stool down to midget size, froze like a deer in the headlights at Garrison's questions, and then went on to play a sweet, flawless rendition of the Minute Waltz? Or the 15-year-old fiddler who was missing her prom that night, but wore her prom dress anyway? Heck, I think even I would have voted for them over me.
We were all so nervous. But we all made it through, everyone shone (though I of course had many microscopic criticisms of my own performance), and then we sat, rigid with anticipation and exhilarated with relief at having it over, while Garrison delivered his monologue. It's probably the only monologue that didn't cause me to hang on and savor every word. I didn't hear any of it, I'm embarrassed to say.
The show producer approached me near the end of Garrison's monologue and whispered, "The kids aced it, but you should be ready to go out there. I'm sorry. The vote count was extremely close." I knew what that meant. The Prairie Home Companion version of the Miss Congeniality award. But I wasn't sorry at all, I was completely honored.
The Ray Marklund Toolbox Award is given to the contestant that the band and staff consider to have been the most fun and easiest to work with. Garrison called my name from the stage once again (it was, oddly, at this point that I realized the show has something like 3 million listeners worldwide, and I nearly fainted). I strode onto the stage, however, said something utterly forgettable, and shook his hand. He handed me the toolbox, weighing in at close to 30 pounds, and I tried to exit gracefully, struggling under the weight of the toolbox and feeling inelegant.
An honor such as this does not immediately rocket one to fame, as many back home thought it might. It certainly didn't hurt my musical career, but more than that it was a chance to meet some topnotch performers, see the show put together, meet a man for whom I hold enormous admiration, and discover just how nice the folks are that live in that other frozen hinterland of the north.
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