GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Tom Brosseau grew up fascinated by his grandfather’s record collection. Amid all of the titles by groups and solo artists, one genre really stood out — recorded radio shows.
The Grand Forks native refers to the Bob Dylan lyrics from “Ballad of a Thin Man” to describe the appeal: “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is.”
“It was the variety,” Brosseau says now. “It was so dynamic. It seemed to be the kind of programming that could capture the attention of a 10-year-old boy.”
For decades, he’s tried to figure out how to create his own radio show. His answer, “The Great American Folk Show,” hits Prairie Public airwaves at 5 p.m. Sunday, May 3.
While Brosseau has made a name for himself as a singer and guitarist, he says the show is more than just music, stressing that storytelling and poetry will play a part, too.
“My real purpose with the show is to find the talent, bring these people the platform to share these stories, music, traditions,” he says.
Some of the voices on Sunday’ broadcast will be well-known to regional audiences. He’s invited his friend, actor and singer John C. Reilly, as well as famed Grand Forks Herald food columnist Marilyn Hagerty, musicians Tom Lennon and Heidi Gluck and artist Penni Emrich Burkum.
“I’d love to be a regular on the show,” Reilly says. “It’s such a balm for our times.”
Brosseau has plans for a second show and would like to do them monthly.
"Tom's going to bring something back that we lost when 'A Prairie Home Companion' went off the air," Reilly says. "He's the perfect person to do this. Tom understands what makes people unique and he's an amazing musicologist."
Though he's known for roles in comedies like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and “Step Brothers,” Reilly is an accomplished singer and guitarist in his own right. While he was nominated for a Grammy for “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” his music career has been more focused on country and folk music. He and Brosseau have toured together in the group John C. Reilly and Friends, playing the Fargo Theatre in 2012, the same year they released two singles produced by Jack White.
“I just about fell off of my chair when I heard Tom's voice,” the actor told The Forum in 2012. “I'm a big fan of The Everly Brothers and close-harmony acts. I have a pretty high voice myself, and it's pretty hard to find someone — a man anyway — who can sing as high or higher than me. Honestly, I didn't think there was anyone out there who could sing like Tom does. It was a real revelation.”
For Sunday’s show, Reilly is featured reading a story, written by Brosseau’s father, Jim, about a fire in a Norwegian Lutheran church.
Brosseau says while he’s learned a lot from Reilly when they toured as John C. Reilly and Friends, “The Great American Folk Show” isn’t modeled after those performances. Nor is it inspired by “A Prairie Home Companion,” a show Brosseau grew up listening to and now calls “mythic.”
“It’s a warm show and perfect for these times,” says “The Great American Folk Show” producer, Erik Deatherage, of Prairie Public. He credits Brosseau as a host who comforts listeners with songs and stories.
While he now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and young daughter, Brosseau still shows off his North Dakota humility as he dismisses praise for his role.
“I have the interludes,” he says simply.
He prefers to focus on talking about the guests, like Lennon, a cousin of the popular singing group The Lennon Sisters from “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
Brosseau gets most excited talking about Hagerty, someone he’s known most of his life.
“I grew up seeing her in church,” he recalls. “I remember her as really tall with a peculiar smile. I think she was always thinking of her next story and always writing. That’s what that smile is about.”
Deatherage says Brosseau’s inclusion of Hagerty in the show is an explanation point on just how warm and welcoming the show is.
“Her voice is part of the comfort to the show,” says the producer, who used to live in Grand Forks. “Just hearing her talk makes me feel connected to that city again.”
On the show, Hagerty reads from a 1993 review of the Grand Forks bar Bonzer's.
“Everybody has a story they can relate to, and that’s comforting,” Brosseau says.
The singer recently released two live recordings and is working on a new album he’s recording at home now as he and his family practice social distancing. The album, tentatively titled “Forever Autumn Leaves,” is another of his odes to North Dakota.
So what’s giving him comfort during quarantine? He’s reading H.G. Wells’ 1898 science-fiction classic “War of the Worlds” and listening to Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack to “The Master.”
And when he’s not working on his own songs, he’s singing Disney tunes with his daughter.
“It’s a shame a lot of us only go back to these old Disney movies because we have kids, because they are so beautiful. We should be watching them anyway,” he says.
On the radio
What: “The Great American Folk Show”
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, May 3
Station: Prairie Public (89.3 FM, 90.7 FM in Grand Forks).