An online celebration of the life of John Prine. Produced by the Prine family and Oh Boy Records, featuring musicians, actors and friends remembering our beloved JP.
The tribute will feature memories and songs as well as rare and never-before-seen footage of John himself, while raising money for three organizations: NAMI, Alive Hospice and Make the Road New York
After the credits please stick around for “I Remember Everything” which was John Prine’s last recording. The song was written by John and his long-time friend and collaborator Pat McLaughlin. This recording took place in John’s living room with Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Cobb. Available Now.
“Our beloved John died yesterday evening at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville TN. We have no words to describe the grief our family is experiencing at this time. John was the love of my life and adored by our sons Jody, Jack and Tommy, daughter in law Fanny, and by our grandchildren.
John contracted Covid-19 and in spite of the incredible skill and care of his medical team at Vanderbilt he could not overcome the damage this virus inflicted on his body.
I sat with John – who was deeply sedated- in the hours before he passed and will be forever grateful for that opportunity.
My dearest wish is that people of all ages take this virus seriously and follow guidelines set by the CDC. We send our condolences and love to the thousands of other American families who are grieving the loss of loved ones at this time – and to so many other families across the world.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the outpouring of love we have received from family, friends, and fans all over the world. John will be so missed but he will continue to comfort us with his words and music and the gifts of kindness, humor and love he left for all of us to share.
In lieu of flowers or gifts at this time we would ask that a donation be made to one of the following non profits.” – Fiona Whelan Prine
The 71-year-old’s songs soundtrack moments of deep pain and joy for many, including writer Jayson Greene.
By JASON GREENE | Pitchfork
When my wife had been in labor for 16 hours, I played her John Prine’s “Everything Is Cool.” She’d begun gasping instead of breathing, climbing into the tub to gather herself. As Prine’s fingerpicking rang out from a tiny speaker, she closed her eyes and smiled.
The song is simple, like all Prine songs, a folk lament with a deliberate pace ideal for slow breathing. Over three chords, the singer-songwriter pines for a loved one who has traveled beyond reach—“Across the sea to an island where the bridges brightly burn/So far away from my land/The valley of the unconcerned.” The valley of the unconcerned—that felt like where our daughter was at that moment. We were stuck somewhere else, whatever you would call such a place: the cul-de-sac of the flustered. Together, we beckoned her: join us. The song looped, my wife’s labor progressed, and our daughter slowly moved closer. The midwife and nurses gathered around my wife, and she started pushing. Everything is cool.Everything’s OK.
When my daughter died two years later, the song rang out again into the stricken silence at her service. This time, it felt like a hymn. The song is pierced halfway through by an image of grace and purification: “I saw a hundred thousand blackbirds just flying through the sky/And they seemed to form a teardrop/From a black-haired angel’s eye/And that tear fell all around me/And it washed my sins away.” A message from our daughter, perhaps, a dispatch from the valley of the unconcerned, to which she returned. Everything is cool here, guys, she was reassuring us. Everything’s OK.
I tell all of this to John Prine, and he listens gravely, attentively. His wife Fiona has just brought me into his Manhattan hotel suite and left us alone. “Well, since you’ve been through what you’ve been through, you deserve to know what the song is about,” he says,
his voice so gravelly it sounds broken up by radio static. “It wasn’t about death, so much as about the death of a relationship. You just met the ‘black-haired angel,’” he says, nodding in Fiona’s direction. “I met her chasing after my soon-to-be ex-wife. I had malice in my heart, as angry as I could be, like I was going to find somebody and hurt them. It wasn’t like me at all; I wanted to get rid of that feeling. And while I was running around after my ex, I ran into Fiona, and she washed my sins away. I don’t know if I ever told her that. I think she knows it though.”
I ask if it surprises him that his divorce song would be my death song, that it would speak to me so clearly of grief and grace, redemption and transfiguration. He thinks for a second, then smiles. “Well, there’s only two things,” he says. “There’s life, and there’s death. So it’s a 50/50 shot.”
In 1970, Ebert was a young critic at the Sun-Times, when he came across a young singer-songwriter-mailman playing future standards at the Fifth Peg, in “out of the way” Lincoln Park.
In one of those wonderful Chicago moments, it turns out that one of the best writers to ever come out of the city discovered, or was at least the first person to review, one of the best musicians to ever come out of the city: Roger Ebert covered John Prine for the Sun-Times in 1970, back when he was still a mailman and playing at the Fifth Peg, “out of the way” at 858 W. Armitage, a couple blocks from where Charlie Trotter later redefined Chicago cuisine. Ebert’s original review is, as you’d expect, great. What surprised me about it was how many of Prine’s masterpieces had already been written (coincidentally, Ebert’s piece ran on October 9, the day before Prine turned 24): “Illegal Smile,” “Angel From Montgomery,” “Sam Stone” (then “The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues”), “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”
Prine was also a child of one of my favorite Chicago subjects, the Hillbilly Highway, though I didn’t know how good his pedigree was:
So you talk to him, and you find out that Prine has been carrying mail in Westchester since he got out of the Army three years ago. That he was born in Maywood, and that his parents come from Paradise, Ky. That his grandfather was a miner, a part-time preacher, and used to play guitar with Merle Travis and Ike Everly (the Everly brothers’ father). And that his brother Dave plays banjo, guitar and fiddle, and got John started on the guitar about 10 years. ago.
Paradise, in western Kentucky, no longer exists. Coal companies strip mined the land around it, and residents sold out to the TVA to escape the massive Paradise Fossil Plant.
Here’s Prine playing … “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” eight years out from Ebert’s piece.
Sixteen hours may sound like a crazy amount of run time, but considering Ken Burns was covering nearly 100 years of music, his PBS documentary “Country Music” was anything but “too long.” It was excellent from start to finish, and I didn’t want it to end. That said, the venerable documentarian with the puddin’ bowl haircut made several glaring omissions. There are five performers that I believe Mr. Burns gave short shrift.
Here they be:
#1 GLEN CAMPBELL
Glen Campbell deserved more than the brief mention he had in the documentary. He was the most popular “cross-over” artist of his time (not always a compliment, but in this case it is.) “The“Glen Campbell Good Time Hour” television show, which aired 1969-1972, featured crackerjack live performances and duets with the likes of Ray Charles, Tom Jones, “newcomer” Linda Ronstadt, C&W greats Roger Miller, Merle Haggard and many others. Like all the variety shows of that time, the great music was punctuated with slimy celebrity walk-ons and unfunny comic skits, but what the hell can the son of an Arkansas cotton-picker do about that?
Can one possibly overstate the greatness of Glen Campbell’s most famous songs “Galveston,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Wichita Lineman”? (Each composed by the legendary Jimmy Webb.)
Glen called “Wichita Lineman” the favorite of all his songs. Mine too. In an interview before his death, Glen said that he filled in what might have been a third verse of “Wichita Lineman” with a guitar solo, one now considered iconic. He performed the solo on a six-string bass guitar belonging to legendary L.A. bass player Carol Kaye.
He was one of the most respected session musicians of the ‘60s – a certified member of the famed collection of session men deemed The Wrecking Crew. (There’s a documentary on those rascals also – check it out). That’s Glen’s guitar on Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP, and on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” By his own count he played on 586 recordings. “None of those singing stars I backed even knew my name,” he has said. ” I was just the guy at theend of the line, picking guitar.” Among country guitar pickers – he had few peers.
And of course, Glen Campbell could sing! Along with his songs, Campbell’s duet album with the mysterious and talented Delta beauty Bobbie Gentry was nearly as good as George & Tammy’s duets, peaking at #1 (in 1968, no less!) Their on-screen chemistry was, well maybe not “clean as country water”, but certainly “wild as mountain dew.”
His TV show always began with the opening chords of “Gentle On My Mind,” the classic written by John Hartford, who was also a regular on the show. Some consider that song not only Glen’s signature, but the greatest country song of all time.
Glen’s life story was a country song – complete with drug addiction, love affairs (Tanya Tucker), booze, fights, jail, and comebacks (“Rhinestone Cowboy”). For christsake, he even shared a movie screen with John Wayne (“True Grit”).
He had a sad, but beautiful ending to his career and life. Following his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Campbell embarked on a final “Goodbye Tour” with three of his children joining him in his backup band. He said about his disease at that time, “The stuff I can’t remember is great because it’s a lot of stuff I don’t want to remember anyway.”
Wouldn’t footage of one of those final shows of Glen & Family have been perfect for a documentary that had such strong themes of family, faith, struggle, and Redemption?
#2 ALISON KRAUSS
This omission is even more curious than that of Glen Campbell, because Alison is as popular as she’s ever been, and has never been more respected in the greater music community (recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.)
She has sung or played fiddle with nearly all the country artists in the documentary, including Dolly, Emmylou, Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill. She’s also collaborated with performers outside of country music, such as Elvis Costello (who wrote “Scarlet Tide” which she beautifully performs in the film Cold Mountain), and the famed classical cellist Yo Yo Ma (singing on “Slumber My Darling,” a song written by Stephen Foster in the year 1862.)
Alison is actually the most awarded singer and the most awarded female artist in Grammy history. She was a Nashville “Outlaw” from the get-go, signing with Boston’s Rounder Records in 1987 and staying loyal to her tiny record label even after she became popular. She has performed on the Academy Awards and sung at the White House (invited by President Barack Obama). She has even recorded an excellent duet album with Led Zeppelin’s Robert.
Even with her forays into rock, pop, and classical music, she has been a guardian of the true Bluegrass musical tradition from her teenage years to today.
So, how in Sam Hill did Mr. Burns pass on all this? Maybe I’m biased, as I first saw her play a live show in 1985 when she was just 18 years old, in a church hall less than a mile from my current home. I’ve loved her ever since.
Had Burns given her proper treatment, he may have used this sublime live performance of Alison performing the country spiritual “Down To the River To Pray,” a song featured in the Coen Brothers’ brilliant film, O Brother Where Art Thou?
#3: AUSTIN CITY LIMITS
Burns barely mentioned PBS’ iconic Austin City Limits in his documentary, even though he used lots of footage from the show. Now in its 40th season, Austin City Limits was far more entertaining, musically challenging, and more influential than anything ever presented on the often-creepy CMT! (Ralph Emery? bleh!)
Austin City Limits” first aired in 1975, with Willie Nelson featured in the pilot, and Asleep at the Wheel and Bob Wills’ Original Texas Playboys on the first episode. Each week since then, I could turn to my local PBS station and have the opportunity to see live performances from C&W legends like Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. But even more cool was discovering new performers on the “fringe” of C&W, getting little exposure elsewhere; performers like Lyle Lovett, Buddy Miller, Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, Jim Lauderdale, John Hiatt, the Avett Brothers, Neko Case, The Jayhawks, Nanci Griffith, and Joe Ely – all who were first introduced to me by watching Austin City Limits.
“It was the biggest deal for me because it was a show for musicians,” singer Sheryl Crow said when invited on the show. “It was where you got to see authentic singer-songwriters, authentic players and it was the mark of real musicianship.”
Authentic, cutting-edge, and inclusive, Austin City Limits has done more to promote real country music than any similar coming out of Nashville. And of course, Austin City Limits featured the greatest theme song ever – Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” (“I wanna go home with the armadillo…”)
#4 IRIS DEMENT
It’s not completely surprising that singer-songwriter Iris DeMent was ignored on the documentary. DeMent is notoriously shy and seldom gives interviews. She doesn’t always smile in photos. She mainly sings gospel music, yet she herself teeters between being an agnostic and an atheist. She’s recorded only six albums since 1993. Yet I completely agree with National Public Radio’s assessment of Iris:
“Iris DeMent makes music that celebrates humanity’s efforts toward salvation, while acknowledging that most of our time on Earth is spent reconciling with the fact that we don’t feel so redeemed. Grounded in hymns, early country songs, gospel and folk, DeMent’s work is treasured by those who know it for its insight and unabashed beauty.“
There is “unabashed beauty” in the seminal country songs Burns repeats through his documentary – songs like the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Waiting For a Train” and “Miss the Mississippi.” Iris DeMent is so grounded in that tradition, her best songs would fit comfortably on those original recordings of the Carters and “The Blue Yodeler” made in Bristol, Tennessee in the year 1927.
She was born in Arkansas, the youngest of 14 children in a Pentecostal household. Her beautiful song “Mama’s Opry” describes hearing her mother singing along to records by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family (“Nothing in the world is as dear to me, as the sound of my Mama’s Opry”. )
Her debut album, 1992’s “Infamous Angel,” included the song David Byrne would record, “Let the Mystery Be.” Another song from the debut LP, “Our Town” was memorably played during the closing scene for the final episode the much-adored TV series “Northern Exposure.”) Television critics have referred to that scene as the finest ending to a television series ever, and I believe most of the credit should go to Iris’ touching recollection of her the hometown of her youth.
The Los Angeles Times wrote on July 26, 1995:
“Northern Exposure” was in fact quite life-affirming in its celebration of community, friendship and nature and its respect for diversity and life’s imponderables. Now it’s passing away. Yet even as it does so, the show gently reminds us once again, with tonight’s final montage and its last brilliant musical selection of Iris DeMent’s “Your Town”, that life goes on. Let’s dance.”
In 1999, Iris sang four duets with John Prine on his wonderful album “In Spite of Ourselves,” including the great title track. In 2004 she recorded Lifeline, a collection of traditional Protestant gospel songs. In her liner notes, DeMent recounts how her mother sang these songs in times of stress looking straight at the sky, “as if she were talking to someone.” In 2012, she recorded a song “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.”
While some find her vocal stylings contain too much twang, Merle Haggard once called her “the best singer I’ve ever heard.” Iris believed that title belonged to Tammy Wynette, for whom she dedicated the song “Making My Way Back Home” from her last LP. “Tammy was just the greatest country singer there ever was.”
About the country songs she writes, Iris has says, “I’m not writing for my own entertainment. I’m writing and singing as part of a calling. I feel like I have a job to do, and I invite the spirits of the dead into my room; I invite my history, the people who got me here. When I go to work, I actually call to mind other people I’m close to. I sort of pray.”
Country Music? Country music is Iris DeMent.
#5 JOHN PRINE
John Prine is, in my opinion, the best songwriter living today.
Of John Prine’s greatest song, “Angel From Montgomery,” Bonnie Raitt has said, “I think that song probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song.” Prine says he wrote the song based on a “vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater … She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come take her away from all this.”
While “Angel From Montgomery” is often listed amount the top 100 country songs of all time, other performers prefer “Paradise,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “Souvenirs,” or “Unwed Fathers.” Bob Dylan’s favorite is “Lake Marie.” Johnny Cash’s had a hit with “Sam Stone” in 1971, even though Cash cut-out Prine’s original lyric, “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Prine’s songwriting has been described as “veering from humorous to devastating, often in the same line.”
Since Prine’s self-titled debut in 1971, he has recorded over 20 albums (my favorites are “The Missing Years” and “In Spite of Ourselves”), and performed concerts around the world. A young journalist named Roger Ebert wrote a rave review for the Chicago Sun- Times, essentially launching Prine’s music career. Next, an admiring Kristofferson got him his first record contract. Dylan and Cash soon hailed Prine as one of the best songwriters of his generation. Today Prine is listed among the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Grammy Hall of Fame inducted his 1971 debut album in 2014.
A new generation of songwriters have adopted him as mentor and hero. Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Margo Price, each have opened for Prine. “We hold him up as our Hank Williams,” says Todd Snider. Kacey Musgrave had a hit with the awesomely-titled “Burn One With John Prine.” I’d like to burn one with him, too. Who wouldn’t?
As for a great Country Music “story” – he was working as a mailman when he recorded that first record. He served in the Army, stationed in Germany, during the Vietnam War (how in the world did Burns not interview Prine in his segment about the Vietnam war?) His grandpa was a carpenter. He’s been beating cancer for about 20 years. And like Jesus Christ, he eventually found his “Irish bride.” (see “Jesus, the Missing Years”.)
So. Many. Great. Songs.
I love the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Guy Clark – each of whom Ken Burns devoted considerable time. None of these can hold a candle to John Prine as a songwriter. (True, Gram and Townes died young). But just as Townes’ most unforgettable song “Pancho and Lefty” was dissected for its greatness in the documentary, so could “Angel From Montgomery,” and several other Prine compositions – like “Hello In There”:
“Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger And old rivers grow wilder every day Old people just grow lonesome Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
John Prine is a national treasure. He became the first songwriter ever to read and perform his work at the Library of Congress – a tribute usually reserved for prize-winning authors, politicians and respected academics.
I can’t for the life of me figure out how Ken Burns left John Prine out of his documentary on country music. But it’s a big ol’ goofy world, right? The good news is that Prine will soon be the focus of his own documentary (working title “John Prine: Hello in There”). Hello and thankfully not yet goodbye.
“Up in the morning Work like a dog Is better than sitting Like a bump on a log Mind all your manners Be quiet as a mouse Some day you’ll own a home That’s as big as a house …
There’s a big old goofy man Dancing with a big old goofy girl Ooh baby It’s a big old goofy world”