Little stop on the Prairie

Sound-effects man Fred Newman has Garrison Keillor, a notorious Midwesterner, to thank for his current gig.

But a certain Southern businessman gets the credit for inspiring Newman’s whole career.

“I [learned] all these sounds from the storytellers at the Jack Fling’s Cash & Carry Gro,” the New York City-based noise-master remarked by phone recently.

Newman, raised in Georgia, provides the atmosphere for the beloved NPR staple A Prairie Home Companion, including the long-running radio show’s traveling side project, “The Rhubarb Tour,” which plays a sold-out Asheville gig on Monday.

The Cash & Carry Gro, explains Newman, was located on the single black street on the white side of his old hometown. And the community store’s sign didn’t allow enough room to spell out “Grocery.”

Amid the crux of ’50s and ’60 racial tension, the Gro also didn’t allow segregation.

“Everyone — blacks and whites — mixed in the store,” recalls Newman, who is white. “I’d tell my parents I was playing baseball, and then I’d go in the store.”

It was one local character in particular who stands out in Newman’s mind — a guy who told a story about driving down the street with a cat on his lap. Newman recreates the automotive zooms, the feline squalls.

“When he started a story, I was unwrapping a Popsicle,” Newman recalls. “About 30 minutes later, I was sitting there holding two sticks, with an orange puddle at my feet.”

But despite the power of that tale — the same one that nudged the sound-effects man into his present line of work — Newman is quick to give props to his current boss.

“Nobody,” he says, “does as much with the voice and taking people somewhere as Garrison Keillor.”

The Prairie Home host has been ferrying audiences to Lake Wobegon, a fictional Minnesota town, since 1974. Each week’s radio show includes Keillor’s update, beginning, “It’s been a quiet week in my hometown,” and followed by at least 15 minutes of an intricately woven tale that can travel anywhere from a neighborhood bar to a local church — the Sidetrack Tap and Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, respectively.

Along the way, he pokes gentle fun at Lutherans and Norwegians (Keillor’s own background), peeking into the business of such characters as the Bunsens and the Krebsbachs. The lives of these “average folks” warmly resonate with the average listener.

The rest of the show is a variety of musical acts and comedy routines; commercials for fictitious products like Powder Milk Biscuits; weekly installments of “Guy Noir, Private Eye”; messages from the Ketchup Advisory Board; and Keillor reading greetings from his listeners.

“Powder Milk Biscuits is like the Light Crust Doughboys from the Grand Ole Opry,” Newman notes. “[Prairie Home Companion] is kind of in homage to that show.”

Keillor met Newman in 1980, when the latter was doing a tour to promote his book Mouthsounds: How to Whistle, Pop, Click and Honk Your Way to Social Success. It was right around the time that Keillor had gone national with his weekly broadcast. On air, Newman broke out his Baby Elizabeth voice, and Keillor immediately went along, inviting the “child” to sit on his lap. Then the two sang a song.

“Ever since then, I’ve marveled at [Keillor’s] ability to do what those guys in Jack Fling’s store did — tell a story — and coalesce all these musicians, too,” Newman reveals. “Who else has been doing that, and for so long?”

And Newman isn’t easily impressed. His career in sound effects has landed him such high-profile gigs as hosting Nickelodeon’s Livewire and six seasons of The Mickey Mouse Club. He also created voices and sounds for Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cocoon and other movies. Currently, he’s the sound designer and music composer for Disney’s Doug, a Saturday-morning cartoon — and grown-ups will recognize him as the voice of Gary Trudeau’s character Duke, from radio and Web Doonesbury projects.

“I’ve worked with a lot of well-known people — mostly in TV,” Newman explains. “But [Prairie Home] is all about Garrison’s vision. It’s a clean, clear vision, and everyone is there to support [it]. He produces, he directs, he writes — he does everything and you just help him do it. He’s such a great performer — he tells stories, he sings … he does everything but dance.”

Somehow, in the midst of creating his weekly radio show, Keillor also manages time for his side project, The Rhubarb Tour. Though similar to the Prairie format, Rhubarb performances use a smaller cast and offer a more intimate show.

Prairie Home does [The Rhubarb Tour] to help small stations,” explains WCQS-FM’s Uri Neren, the local station’s capital campaign coordinator.

“We’ve been soliciting PHC to come to Asheville for maybe six years,” Neren reveals. “We’ve finally got them to come to our very small auditorium.” (Usually the popular show broadcasts from theaters with at least a 3,500-person capacity; Thomas Wolfe Auditorium has 2,400 seats.)

Though The Rhubarb Tour isn’t nationally broadcast, WCQS reserves the rights to the Asheville show, and will broadcast it locally at a later date. More importantly, the show serves as a fund-raiser for the WCQS Capital Campaign, which aims to add six new translators, replace old broadcasting equipment with new digital technology, and update the station’s building to meet fire-safety codes.

Neren confesses he was nervous about local response — but, as it turns out, needlessly so: The event sold out in a mere three days.

“[The Rhubarb Tour] tests the waters,” he explains. “If PHC likes us, we may get them back [to broadcast] the national show.”

But just because it’s a small-markets tour doesn’t mean Rhubarb means less to its star.

The show, Newman points out, “lets Garrison stretch out — there’s a lot more improv and play with the audience.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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