Chris Thile drops final three members of Garrison Keillor’s ‘Prairie Home’ cast

September 18, 2018

“Live From Here,” the Minnesota Public Radio show that evolved out of “A Prairie Home Companion,” is taking another significant step away from its roots by dismissing three longtime associates of former host Garrison Keillor.

Richard Dworsky, the show’s musical director for 25 years, is being replaced by Grammy-nominated producer Mike Elizondo, who was a protege of hip-hop mastermind Dr. Dre and eco-wrote Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova.”

Voice actor Tim Russell, who has been with the program since 1994, and sound-effects wizard Fred Newman also will be gone when the show returns to the air Oct. 6.

“I can’t complain,” said Newman, who joined the troupe in 2001. “I’m not just being Pollyanna-ish about it, but I’m old enough to know you don’t get good gigs like this one very often. Tim, Rich and I have all talked and agree that it was a fantastic ride.”

The decision, made earlier in this month, is the clearest sign yet that “Live” will rely less on cornball comedy sketches and more on the eclectic musical tastes of mandolinist Chris Thile, who took over as host two years ago.

“I stand in awe and will be forever grateful to these extraordinary gentlemen,” Thile said in a statement. “Their artistry, individually and collectively, is an essential, immortal part of America’s sonic landscape.”

Newman said the evolution was evident late last season when the two-hour program typically included only three sketches. In its heyday, “Prairie” would present as many as eight sketches, with at least one long piece spotlighting familiar characters like detective Guy Noir or cowboy Lefty.

“People stick the word ‘nostalgia’ on the show, but the great contribution of ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ was juvenile comedy,” Keillor said in an e-mail Tuesday. “We single-handedly brought flatulence to radio broadcasting.”

Newman said he understood the move away from a certain brand of humor.

“Chris has to make it his show,” he said. “I was there in the transition to help him experiment and see what elements he wanted to carry forward. He’s a strong, brilliant musician and Chris is playing to his strengths.”

Dworsky, whose versatility at the piano was a key component in “PHC’s” success, also expressed support for Thile.

“I’m buddies with Chris and am totally supportive of anything he wants to do,” he said.

Long-time actor Sue Scott left the cast before the 2017-18 season — Thile’s second as host. Her replacement, Serena Brook, will take over Russell’s announcing duties. She will be joined by Mike Yard, a former contributor to “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore,” Second City veteran Holly Laurent and Los-Angeles based writer Greg Hess.

“The new mix of talent further energizes our celebration of hearable beauty and hilarity,” Thile said.

Earlier this summer, MPR dismissed three other longtime members of the “Prairie Home” team: managing director Kate Gustafson, publicist David O’Neill and Jason Keillor, Garrison’s son.

No guests have been announced for the first four shows of the new season, which kicks off in San Francisco, followed by two broadcasts from St. Paul — Oct. 13 at the Palace Theater and Oct. 20 at the Fitzgerald — and an Oct. 27 date in Lincoln, Neb.

Then the show will take a few weeks off — in part so Thile can tour Europe with his band the Punch Brothers.

Keillor comeback?

Meanwhile, Keillor has scheduled two shows Nov. 3 at Crooners Lounge and Supper Club in Fridley. Both are sold out.

They will be his first headlining gig in the Twin Cities since MPR severed ties with him last November, saying an internal investigation had found that had engaged in “sexually inappropriate” behavior with a longtime writer for “Prairie Home.” Keillor acknowledged an email flirtation with the woman but contends he was unfairly treated by his former employer and seems to be inching towards a comeback.

His return is almost certain to involve the participation of some old friends.

Dworsky will perform with Keillor at Crooners. And Keillor is planning to have dinner with Newman this weekend in New York. Future collaborations will definitely be on the menu, he said.

“I’m only 76,” Keillor said. “No reason to stop having fun.”

Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • @nealjustin

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