Two years ago was the last time I was in Nashville. It was a busy two weeks in which we met a lot of folks, managed to write a song or two and saw some great gigs…oh and, as ever, bought a few records to take home. However I was a little worried. My producer Mr M, with his usual dedication to duty, had secured some significant artists for me to interview. Early in the week, too early for me, we were due over at Oh Boy records to interview John Prine.
Now 75% of me was excited about this but that other 25% was worried. The worry came from the fact that, despite being an admirer of John Prine’s songwriting since the seventies, I really didn’t have an extensive collection of his albums. It was like one of these dreams where you’re about to sit an exam for which you have done no revision or, the one my wife dreams often, taking to the stage without knowing your lines. In truth, I didn’t know my lines. However I had decided I would do as much homework as I could possibly squeeze in. But…..what if he started talking about something he’d expect me to know? What if I looked blank and John Prine just shook his head in despair and pointed me to the door? All these thoughts were rattling around my head as we waited in the foyer of Prine HQ /Oh Boy Records.
I am pleased to say I should never have worried. It was a perfect morning in the Germantown office of the great man. The first printed copies of the new album, ‘The Tree Of Forgiveness’ had just been delivered and the boss was wreathed in laughter and smiles.
Two years later I can understand how delighted he must have been. Little did he know (though with John’s health record I imagine it’s a thought that would often cross his mind) that the digi-packed sleeves he was lovingly examining would mark the full stop on a career spanning six decades. John died last week, one more victim of Covid19, which is taking some well loved faces from us.
There has been an outpouring of love and affection that, even in a time when we have lost many of that pioneering generation of artists, goes well beyond the usual stock eulogies. Country musicians from all sides of the tradition genuinely loved John Prine. They loved his songs, his delivery, his attitude to life (and death) and they really loved him for who he really was. Chuck Prophet (always great copy) tweeted a great story about hanging with John in the West of Ireland in a lock-in. He remembered JP enthusiastically telling him how he’d met Alex Chilton. In the New York Times Jason Isbell wrote a moving obituary which included a great tale from the road. He recalled:
A few years ago, my wife, Amanda Shires, was touring in Scandinavia with John Prine, and when they arrived in Sweden she saw him write “songwriter” on his customs form as his occupation. “When did you decide that it was OK to write ‘songwriter’ on these forms?” she asked him. “Today,” he told her. “I usually put dancer.”
The following summer after that encounter, under a leaden sky which, that very day, had sent enough rain to the streets of Glasgow to keep everyone and everything well watered for a year ahead, John Prine brought joy to Kelvingrove. He did dance that night; he danced every night as the band played the final song of the set, ‘Lake Marie.’ We clapped, cheered and laughed. We ignored the rain and felt blessed to be under the Kelvingrove moon with the man.
Many of that audience would have bought tickets for John’s return which was due last year, postponed to February but which never happened. We had all seen John’s last dance, and we were grateful.
John Prine died last week, aged seventy three. He defined the term, ‘patient with underlying health problems.’ He’d twice had cancer treatment over the last twenty odd years and, when we met, I remember feeling surprised and a little concerned that he was about to embark on a lengthy international tour. It was his life, and for forty five years it’s what he did; sang songs to people.
This Tuesday we will remind you why so many loved these songs and loved the man. We’ll play the songs that mattered and also re-visit the interview we recorded in Germantown two years ago with added content never broadcast first time around. It’s a two hour tribute to the most deserving of subjects and we’re live this Tuesday from 8 on BBC Radio Scotland. Join me if you can.