‘Michael Perry: On the Road’ premieres Feb. 27 — Read a Q&A with him!
February 13, 2023 Leave a Comment
Celebrated author, humorist and performer Michael Perry returns to PBS Wisconsin this month with an all-new special.
Part live performance and part road trip, Michael Perry: On the Road invites viewers to experience the comedic and heartfelt nature of Perry’s performances at the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts in Menomonie and the Stoughton Opera House. Traveling between venues, viewers join Perry in his trusty 2002 Toyota Sienna tour van as he shares insights and stories from his career and on life growing up in northern Wisconsin.
Michael Perry: On the Road premieres 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27 on PBS Wisconsin.
Ahead of the premiere, we caught up with Perry to learn more about the new special and his life on the road.
PBS Wisconsin: This is your third special with PBS Wisconsin, the first two being Michael Perry: How Ya Doin’ and Michael Perry: Where I Come From. Can you give us a little background about how you were approached to do this one?
Michael Perry: Well, I don’t always remember these things. I think it was actually an open discussion because we had done those other two, and then they said, “Do you have any ideas for the next?” To my recollection, we just kicked around some ideas, and I did mention this idea that I’ve got this odd little gig where I’m not famous, I don’t have a tour bus, but I am on the road right between 50 to 100 days a year, depending on the year, doing performances.
The performances, they are not at Carnegie Hall, but they are at the Stoughton Opera House and places like that. So, I thought it would possibly be of interest, that perspective. I don’t actually write about that a lot, about what it’s like to be on the road and what it’s like to be on the road at my level, which as it turns out, is in a 2002 Toyota van full of books and sometimes a guitar.
PBS Wisconsin: The performances in those settings are so vivid in the special. What is it like performing in those aesthetically beautiful and storied buildings?
Perry: It’s part and parcel of a theme that has evolved throughout my life ever since I started writing. I feel like I’ve been able to sneak in the back door of so many cool places where I don’t really belong. The venues that I’m allowed to perform at around the state of Wisconsin, there’s an added little, if I may use a French word – frisson – in that people are astounded to find out about these places. It’s one of our little secrets. We have these amazing venues that date back to the lumbering years. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to perform in those places.
Then also there’s this great, this is very Wisconsin, this very ornate, beautiful place, and yet I’m just walking out in my jeans and logging boots. And that’s okay. When we’re at our best in this state, we have found a way to honor and cherish beauty and art, but we also don’t stand too long on pretense. Me performing in logging boots in a place that beautiful is kind of the perfect summation.
PBS Wisconsin: You play to these big rooms in big theaters. Do you still get nervous before you step out on stage?
Perry: I really don’t. I get what I call good nervous, which is just that little edge. I think that edge is really critical because you want your senses elevated a little bit. I’m not going to sleep walk through it. I spent a lot of time on the road in the early days with country music bands, and I remember a roadie one time saying, “If you see food, eat it, and if you get five minutes, sleep.” I’m relaxed enough that if I’m tired, I can grab a quick nap five minutes before I go out on stage. But when I walk up the stairs or I’m waiting in the wings, you’ve got that little edge because you want to do good. You want people to feel that you’re engaged, and that’s never been a problem for me.
PBS Wisconsin: The special is half live performance and half on the road musings. One thing you didn’t really go into too much was your on the road food. It’s safe to say that every seasoned road traveler has their go-tos. What are yours?
Perry: Well, it’s the source of my greatest shame. I wrote about it in-depth, I think in the book “Montaigne in Barn Boots.” I have a chapter called “Shame,” and I’m only half joking. I’m fortunate in that I’ve always loved good, healthy food, like vegetables. I like all that stuff. Also, my wife is very health conscious, and we eat a lot of homemade, locally grown stuff. But perhaps in part because I grew up in a great big family with not a lot of extra, I have a profound weakness for processed junk food and sugar, and I’ve always joked, if you ever find me dead in a hotel room surrounded by mounds of cocaine or some exciting and illicit drug, I was probably murdered and they’re trying to disguise the scene, because I’ve never been into that stuff. But, if you find me dead, dusted in donut powder surrounded by — well, I’m not going to name a brand name, but you know, various snacky snacks — unfortunately, that’s probably what happened.
PBS Wisconsin: So, you’re just as susceptible to the six for $2 Kwik Trip donuts as the rest of us?
Perry: Oh man. One of the things about being on the road for the last 30 years is watching, and by the way I’m not a paid influencer, the growth of Kwik Trip. Growth in every sense. Listen, if it’s 1:00 a.m. and I still got a couple hours to drive and they got blueberry fritters for sale right up there by the cash register, that’s happening.
PBS Wisconsin: Other than the obvious answer of friends and loved ones, when you’re out on the road for a long time, what are some of the things about returning home that you look forward to?
Perry: Just what I’m doing right now, which is being in my little room, above the garage, looking out over our back 40. I’m a loner by nature. I always have been. I’m very shy, and the fact that we’re doing this interview based on a documentary of me putting myself up in front of people and telling stories sounds inimical to that, but it’s true.
For me, it’s just the quiet nothingness of being back here when it snows on the back 40. I like reflection and solitude, and I’m fortunate to be able to balance my little, I don’t even ever know what to call what I do because it’s a lot of different things, but it’s public in a sense, and there’s definitely interaction with the public. But then to come back home to this, I’m just really lucky that they balance out the way they do.
PBS Wisconsin: In the off chance the van doesn’t have another 250,000 miles on it, do you have your eye set on a future tour mobile?
Perry: Well, I drive the Toyota in the knowledge that each mile could be the last. I don’t have a dream vehicle. That’s not true. I do. I have everything I could ever want and need. But was a guy to be in a position where he could just have a big old Silver Eagle tour bus, like Wayland Jennings, and someone to drive it. I would not turn that down. But I’ve looked into it, and it’s not in the budget. So I’ll probably just get another used van. But if things really bust out …
PBS Wisconsin: Is there anything that you’ve read recently that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
Perry: The writer Jim Harrison, who died a few years ago, they just brought out a complete collection of all of his non-fiction pieces. That’s on my bedside table right now, just because he changed my life with his writing, not in person. Before I wrote “Population 485,” I had a certain style of writing that was okay, but I never trusted the reader and everything was interwoven very tightly.
And I remember reading Jim Harrison’s non-fiction pieces and he used a lot of white space and he’d go off on tangents and by the time he got to the end, you went, oh I see, that’s why we took that trip. So I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Jim Harrison.
PBS Wisconsin: 2023 now marks 20 years of you working with public television in Wisconsin. Do you have any reflections or favorite memories?
Perry: Two things. Number one is the one I always cite, which is just gratitude. I say it so often that, I know it sounds corny, but there’s nothing to do, but say it again, which is, I didn’t plan any of this, and I’m just happy to be here. As I said earlier in this interview, I always feel like I’m sneaking in the back door all the time. That’s not even right. I feel like I’m sneaking in the side door all the time. That’s how I feel about working with public television and the projects that we’ve done, whether it was the shows with Andy [Andy Moore, now retired PBS Wisconsin Senior News Producer who worked with Michael on a series of Here & Now features titled the “Clodhopper Reports”], or whether it’s been these longer productions.
The second thing that I would want to say is that for all those 20 years, what I’ve noticed is good people doing good work. And you know me, I default to that whole, by gosh, blue collar work ethic thing. I believe that sometimes when it’s television, and in particular when it’s public television, it’s a little too easy to overlook the human capital, and I have met a series of hardworking, very professional, caring, dedicated people behind the scenes at PBS Wisconsin over the years.
I will never forget, pulling into the Stoughton Opera House the night that they recorded that show and seeing that truck out there and realizing how many people had showed up that night to do a job and do it well. I think that’s what I would close with, is just so many people doing real meaningful work and doing it well. It’s been a privilege to be allowed into their little circle for these projects.