CSU Faculty Offer Impromptu Essay on South on National Radio

It started in the spring of 2006 with a question: “Is there still a South?

The wandering discussion that ensued led, a year later, to the surprise, on-air reading of an impromptu essay by two Columbus State University faculty, plus a friend of the university, during the Columbus visit of the nationally syndicated Prairie Home Companion, heard weekly on National Public Radio by thousands of listeners. And a former CSU student was among the featured musical guests.

“Every single person associated with the show was just very, very nice,” said essayist Cathy Fussell, director of CSU’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. “I’ve tried to think of a more sophisticated way to say it, but that’s just how it was. Everybody was extremely nice and helpful and encouraging.”

Fussell and Virginia Causey, CSU associate professor of history, got to know the show’s longtime host when he presented “An Evening with Garrison Keillor” as CSU’s annual Hunter Lecture on April 13, 2006. Fussell, chair of the lecture committee, and her folklorist husband, Fred Fussell, played host to Keillor.

“We chauffeured him around town for the couple of days that he was here, and that gave us plenty of time to talk about our common interests – traditional music and regional culture,” Cathy Fussell said.

After a visit to the RiverCenter the night before his lecture there, the Fussells were taking him to the Rothschild-Pound House, Columbus’ 137-year-old bed and breakfast, and suggested a stop at the nearby Historic District home of Causey and her husband, Tim Chitwood. Also visiting were former CSU history professor John Lupold, fellow historian Lynn Willoughby and several of Causey’s friends and family from Mississippi.

“Virginia didn’t know that we were bringing Garrison Keillor,” Cathy Fussell said. “So all of us sat on Virginia and Tim’s back screened porch and ate homemade Mississippi cheese straws, which Garrison had never had, and talked way into the night. The main question of the night, posed by Virginia, was, `Is there still a South?’ That gave us lots to talk about, not that we ever need much prompting.”

Keillor apparently enjoyed his first visit to Columbus, mentioning it on the show’s Web site and elsewhere. Within months, Keillor said he would return to the RiverCenter and bring his popular show, then the subject of a Hollywood movie. Prairie Home Companion’s musical director turned to Fred Fussell for advice about possible guest artists.

“Fred has a much more specific knowledge of regional music than do I, so he worked with Garrison’s people on that aspect of the show,” Cathy Fussell said. “Fred sent them names and tapes of probably 25 Georgia musicians, some of them folks we thought of and some of them folks that others had suggested to us, and the Prairie Home folks already had a long list.”

Among the tapes and CDs was one of the Fussells’ son, Jake Fussell, an Oxford, Miss.-based blues musician who had played on the June 25, 2005 Prairie Home Companion show at Chastain Park in Atlanta, accompanying blues artist Precious Bryant on the guitar.

“Garrison’s production people, and apparently Garrison himself, looked at and listened to lots of musicians before finally settling on Jake,” Cathy Fussell said. “We were thrilled, of course, that they chose Jake. We truly appreciated their giving him such a great opportunity. And I was very proud of his performance.”

Jake Fussell, a former CSU student, sang a solo, a duet with a PHC musician and guitar instrumentals during the broadcast.

Keillor arrived a couple of days before the show was to air on Saturday and visited with the Fussells, Causey and others. Walking around the Historic District the day before the broadcast, Keillor had them talking about trees, flowers and food they had just eaten at Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant.

“As we were about to part for the evening, he turned to us and said, `Virginia, Fred, Cathy – Each of you is to write a piece defining what it is to be a Southerner. A minute and a half, two minutes if it’s good. You’re on the air tomorrow afternoon,’” Cathy Fussell recalled.

The resulting essay, read by the trio, ran eight minutes.

They worked separately, with little communication, except to decide that Causey would write about place, Cathy Fussell would write about language and Fred Fussell would write about food. They read their essays aloud for Keillor once, about 20 minutes before the show the next afternoon.

“The very best part of the whole thing, to me, other than, of course, witnessing my own son’s performing, was the opportunity to watch the creative process that results in that show,” Cathy Fussell said. “Garrison Keillor is a quiet, incredibly observant person who walks around like some sort of sponge, soaking up all sorts of details about life and then, in very little time, he turns them into songs and poems and stories.”

And, apparently, he inspires others.

“I don’t think it occurred to a one of us to say no (to the essay request),” Cathy Fussell said. “Watching Garrison himself turn details into art is one thing – but then to be there for rehearsal and performance and watch the show come together is yet another fascinating creative process. The show evolves not only during the rehearsal but during the actual performance. It’s amazing – and it works.”

Causey said she was impressed with Keillor's ability to listen carefully to details about Columbus and 'soak all of that in.'

The result reminded her of 'a love poem on Columbus,' Causey said. 'I thought what he said about Columbus and Columbus State was right on the money.'

The 90-minute Prairie Home Companion show from Columbus can be heard by visiting the show's online archives for that show and tuning in, if your computer has RealAudio software installed. The essay read by Causey and the Fussells is midway through Segment 4. Jake Fussell’s music can be heard in Segment 1, Segment 3 and Segment 5.