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'Prairie' broadcast live in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE -- Abandoning his chilly Minnesota base to sample the warmth of the South, Garrison Keillor taught his 5 million listeners a thing or two about Charlotte on Saturday night.

Transcending its shiny, spiffy skyline -- a thing he said looks like a treasure ship anchored afar -- you can wander down to College Street and eat at a downhome joint like Mert's Heart and Soul.

"And when you leave, the waitress will call you 'honey,"' Keillor mused. "That's how you know you're in the South."

Bringing "A Prairie Home Companion" live broadcast to Charlotte for the first time, Keillor and company had fun with the town and its eccentricities.

Warming up the crowd of 2,400 at Ovens Auditorium before the show, Keillor recalled the discovery of gold in 1799.

"It being the South, there was no gold rush," he deadpanned. "It was more of a gold walk."

He then asked country singer Suzy Bogguss to join him in a couple soulful verses of "Dixie." That completed, he turned to the audience and cracked, "That's a good way to offend all my liberal friends up North."

A long road for 'Prairie'

From there, he unwound in monologue and song the region's favored quirks: Pecan pie, fried baloney, cheeseburgers with cole slaw.

"Charlotte aims at perfection," he crooned. "There's a church at every intersection."

"A Prairie Home Companion," a sort of folkloric "Hee Haw" for the public radio crowd, airs on more than 500 stations. Its base is the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., but the program takes annual road trips.

Saturday night's broadcast was the result of years of invitations from Charlotte's WFAE-FM.

Keillor, who did the show in red sneakers, was reworking the scripts on a laptop backstage until nearly curtain time.

Getting it ready

Dominating the Ovens stage was a Midwestern-style farmhouse facade and a 9-foot Steinway, the show's requisite instrument for band leader Richard Dworsky. Charlotte, for all its highfalutin' culture, isn't exactly stocked with grand pianos.

WFAE had to import one from Winston-Salem, paying $1,500 for its use for the weekend. "Not a hot rental item," said Rene Rallos, WFAE's promotions assistant.

But Charlotte's arts scene did provide two of the show's standouts: Ethan Uslan, a gifted ragtime pianist who hails from here, and native Nappy Brown, who is mounting a comeback at age 78 with a new album of his bluesy standards called "Long Time Coming."

Other Charlotte-area landmarks -- and its Bible Belt roots -- drew ribbings from Keillor. Referencing its moonshiner origins, Keillor declared that "NASCAR wasn't started by Lutherans."

Even the town's banking industry drew laughs. Keillor's signature character, St. Paul private eye Guy Noir, wound up on a trip to Charlotte to straighten out an $18 overcharge for wontons during one skit. He figured it would be quicker to go in person than to fight the phone mail purgatory.

His financial institution: "Bank of North America."

Saturday night's "A Prairie Home Companion" broadcast will air again at noon today on WFAE-FM (90.7 Charlotte)

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