“People aren’t going to believe what they just heard…” -Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, April 3rd, 2010
“Hello, is this Nell Robinson?” The very familiar voice came over my car radio via my hands-free cell phone setup. “This is Garrison Keillor, I want to talk with you about The Henriettas.” Is this the Twilight Zone, I wondered? I wish I hadn’t accused him of being a prankster. But he was indeed calling from Seattle, whereA Prairie Home Companion was producing their weekly radio show. It was Tuesday, March 29th, and he asked if we could fly up and perform on his show on Saturday, April 3rd.
First, let’s back up a bit. Cary Sheldon and I have been obsessively reviving a 1930s sister duo, The DeZurik Sisters, Mary Jane and Carolyn DeZurik. They were also known as the Cackle Sisters because they wrote and interpreted incredibly intricate harmonized songs and yodels with all sorts of natural sounds, like chickens, whip-poor-wills, bees, horses, and ducks (at least, that’s what it sounds like to us). We heard a couple of their songs and have been crazily working out their yodels and music for over a year. They were a very sweet act and their comedy was not over-done. The chicken yodels were funny but done with lightness and grace, if you can believe it. We love these sisters and hope to honor them by reviving their music. It’s not easy. Anyway, they were from Minnesota, so we sent a note to A Prairie Home Companion and…two months later. Okay, we are now caught up.
The day after the call came from Garrison Keillor, I learned that my father was very ill and not expected to live much longer. I don’t feel I can tell the radio story without this profound event intertwined. We called back to the radio show and told them it was possible we couldn’t do it. Their grace and kindness was just what you might expect from the folks in Lake Wobegone. I was ready to forget the show and fly right home to Florida. But after a few days of conversation, the family decided that Mom – Dad’s wife of 55 years – was the one that he really wanted by his side. So we were back on…five days of intense sadness and also elation.
I packed pictures of my parents’ wedding (Mom was 19, Dad was 21) and their 50th wedding anniversary. Cary and I flew into Seattle at the crack of dawn on Saturday. Oh, but we were tired! Three and half hours sleep. We checked into our rooms and then met Garrison (let’s call him GK) for a van ride to the Paramount Theatre. He looked a little tired; he had his trademark red tennis shoes on. The three of us talked about music and about life while we rode through the streets of Seattle. It turns out that his family is grieving about an imminent loss too. He asked about our gig the evening before and I mentioned a Johnny Cash song that friend and guitarist Jim Nunally and I sang called “I Still Miss Someone.” He said, “We’ll close the show with that.” It became apparent how the show gets created. You could just hear his mind whirring.
He escorted us into the back entrance of the theatre and showed us to our dressing room (!!), and said that he’d see us on stage for a run-through as soon as we were ready. We freaked out in the room for a few minutes, then went on down. The Paramount is an incredibly ornate old theatre with 3000 seats. It’s a real beauty. The show was sold out. Cary and I sat behind the Guys All-Star Shoe Band, and Jim DePaulis, the assistant stage manager, briefed us on what was going to happen. We were to be ready to get onstage, run through our material, and GK, the band and the musical director would decide what they wanted to do with it (if anything). We might end up with just one song. They would create the show by 2 p.m., give us copies of the plan, and then we needed to be ready for it all to change during the live performance.
We got onstage to rehearse and GK asked if we would sing – I mean cluck – the “Powdermilk Biscuit” song with him. The onstage music director, Rich Dworsky, had listened to and charted two songs by The Henriettas and a couple of my songs, and he picked the ones he wanted us to run through. We met the band – they are awesome, super friendly and incredibly talented. I asked GK if he would be God in my song “Woe is Me” and he humbly agreed to take on that role. He is a very funny in person and not just on the radio, by the way. He cracked jokes while still being incredibly focused and driving the development of the show. We tried singing harmony with GK and musical guest Brandi Carlile on the Cash song, but everyone agreed it was better left as a duet.
We then wandered down to catering…great food. More freaking out in the dressing room. The sound from the stage is piped into the halls and rooms, so we could hear what else was happening. We decided to turn that off. It was fueling the freak-out to hear singers like Brandi Carlile and one of my favorite performers (and another musical guest), Nellie McKay.
Quick clothes change (Oh no! Where’s my headband? Can you see through my dress? Get rid of that lipstick, it’s going to distract me!). Then we went to stage right to await our cue, gripping the show plan handed out to us and watching the all-powerful stage manager, Albert Webster, with an eagle eye. They had us down for all three songs we’d rehearsed (yea!), plus the “Biscuit” jingle and joining in at the end for the last song. Cary quietly meditated. I sat with my Dad’s pictures in my lap and watched the show.
Just before we went on, we realized we had a few questions: If GK asks us a question, what do we do? True to The DeZurik Sisters, The Henriettas do not speak onstage, they just cluck. Is it okay if we cluck and then translate? We usually throw feathers at the end, is that okay? And can the show’s sound genius Fred Newman add sound effects to “Woe is Me”? Yes, yes, yes, said the stage manager. “Okay,” we thought, “country has come to town.”
Anyway, we went out and did our songs. The audience was great, and we came backstage and enjoyed every minute of the rest of the show. It was that fast. Over before we knew it. Cary and I made friends, took pictures, breathed an enormous sigh of relief, and asked each other if this really just happened.
On our way out to the van to ride back to the hotel, my phone rang with an urgent message. My husband Skip said he was proud of me, and then told me that my father had passed away that morning and that the family wanted to wait until after the show to tell me. Dad breathed his last breath while holding my mother’s hand, just the two of them. From elation to the deepest sadness in a moment; there’s no other way to put it. Cary and I ordered room service and a bottle of wine, put on a movie and cried and laughed until way too late.
A friend recently gave me a copy of the Blue Sky Boys’ song “Turn Your Radio On.” And that just seemed the perfect way to think about this particular Saturday. I figured that my Dad had made his flight to the next stop, gone through baggage claim, and had the time to settle in front of a radio with all our loved ones and tune in.
Turn your radio on, and listen to the music in the air
Turn your radio on, Heaven’s glory to share
Turn your lights down low, and listen to the Master’s radio
Get in touch with God, turn your radio on
You can listen to the show here: A Prairie Home Companion
Learn more information about The Henriettas.