Garrison Keillor will watch "Prairie Home Companion" for once from the sidelines

After Garrison Keillor drove himself to the ER in 2009 in the early stages of a mild stroke, and then came home to the joy of self-administered belly shots of blood thinners, there was a lot of chatter about whether maybe it was time for the "Prairie Home Companion" host to hang up Guy Noir's shoes.

It was just talk, though. The 68-year-old St. Paul media icon took a little time to recover, and then got right back to business of pumping out radio shows, talking about Lake Wobegon, and penning books and essays.

The is-he-or-isn't-he retiring chatter will likely start afresh, now. On Jan. 15, and for the first time since he founded PHC in 1974, Keillor will be standing at the back of the Fitzgerald Theater when the curtain rises on his show. In his place as host: Sara Watkins, once of the Nickel Creek bluegrass band.

Watkins is no stranger to the show. She went on the road with PHC this past summer, and was part of the cast during a wind-whipped performance at last summer's State Fair Grandstand. And Keillor told the Star Tribune after his medical dust up that he doesn't think the show will die if he isn't hosting it.

"[PHC] is essentially a live, acoustic music variety show. I think that in its essence, it has very little to do with Lake Wobegon, very little to do with Guy Noir. I would love to see it continue, and I think I would be a great producer. I think I'd be a better producer than a host. So I would love to produce a successor show."

So is the Jan. 15 show an audition for a new host? No. Keillor says Watkins's guest-host slot is a one-shot deal, that he'll still deliver the news from Lake Wobegon and a new episode of Guy Noir, and resume his regular spot at center stage in the coming weeks.

Still, it's easy to imagine some of the show's more than four million weekly listeners walking around in a confused daze next weekend when Watkins's angelic tenor greets their ears, rather than Keillor's mellifluous baritone.

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