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A Ryman Love Letter to the Late Great John Prine

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

I don’t know how John Prine would have felt about Monday night’s Covid-delayed celebration of his life. He probably would have cracked a joke at his own expense. He almost certainly would have loved the music. Mostly, though, if story after story told from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium is true, he would have had fun hanging out with his friends.

Prine, a Chicago native who settled in Nashville for the last 40 years of his life, died of Covid in early 2020, one of the first big names to be lost from a pandemic that would shut the country down for two years. This birthday celebration, hosted by his family, was supposed to happen a year ago, but fell victim to yet another Covid surge.

But the show went on Monday, which would have been Prine’s 76th birthday. One after another after another, artists took the stage and talked as much about the impact of Prine’s music as they did about his affable nature and personal kindness.

There was Bonnie Raitt tearing up as she recalled touring in the early 70s with Prine and the late Steve Goodman, likening them to Huck and Tom to her Becky.

She told the audience that the first time she heard Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” - written by a man from the point of view of a heart-breakingly disappointed woman - “I knew I was going to be singing that song for the rest of my life.”

“I love you John, and I know you all do to,” she told the audience, before offering her latest classic version of the song, this time with Brandi Carlisle.

There was Kasey Musgraves talking about her grief the day Prine died, and the night not long after when, also reeling from her own divorce, she said he came to her in a dream and gave her a message and a song. Then she played “Walk in Peace,” telling the audience it was the first time anyone anywhere had heard it.

The list goes on, from more established artists like Lyle Lovett, Jason Isbell, Chris Isaak, Bob Weir, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, Nathaniel Rateliff, Tyler Childress, and Margo Price, to up and commers like the War and Treaty, the Milk Carton Kids, Allison Russell and JT Nero, Lucius, and I’m With Her. You can find the whole setlist here.

A nice moment for Mary and I came when the Milk Carton Kids were introduced, and singer Kenneth Pattengale recalled the time they toured briefly with Prine. One of those shows was at the Chicago Theatre in 2019, and it was the last time we saw him. The tickets came to us by accident at the last minute when a friend couldn’t use them. Given Prine’s illnesses – he had part of his throat removed after a battle with cancer – and the fact that we knew nothing about his then-new album, “Tree of Forgiveness,” we didn’t know what to expect. It was one of the best concerts either one of us had ever seen.

The Milk Carton Kids – Joey Ryan and Pattengale – are a tight harmony duo that draws comparisons to the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel. They play vintage, unamplified acoustic guitars, standing in close proximity to the single microphone that delivers all their sound. Their version of Prine’s “Storm Windows,” in the near-perfect acoustics of the Ryman, was sublime.

Most artists sang a favorite Prine song. Some, like Musgraves and Williams, debuted songs about Prine. In Williams’ case, she recalled an evening they tried to write a song together, with no success but great fun.

“What could go wrong?” she sang after each chorus describing the opening of a new bottle of wine, “Tryin’ to write a song.”

A powerful moment came when Nathaniel Rateliff sang “Sam Stone,” Prine’s ode to a soldier who survives the Vietnam War only to fall victim to heroin addiction. The song, on Prine’s 1971 first album, was written when he was still working as a mailman. Rateliff offered a spare, beautiful rendition to a silent crowd, many of whom were of an age where they might have known someone like the song's protagonist.

“Sam Stone was alone

When he popped his last balloon

Climbing walls while sitting in a chair Well, he played his last request While the room smelled just like death With an overdose hovering in the air But life had lost its fun There was nothing to be done But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill For a flag-draped casket on a local hero's hill

There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose”

On a lighter note, Dwight Yoakam recalled Prine sharing a favorite concert memory, when a San Francisco fan asked him to play the “happy enchilada” song. He assured her that he had never written such a song, then finally realized she was talking about “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round,” which features the chorus:

“It's half an inch of water and you think you're gonna drown That's the way that the world goes 'round.”

Yoakam, along with many in the audience, gleefully substituted “happy enchilada” for “half an inch of water.”

Monday’s concert was part of a series of events around Nashville, all of them benefitting the Hello In There Foundation. Named after an early Prine song about a lonely old couple, it aims to help marginalized people.

The concert ended on a note that was both touching and upbeat. Tommy Prine, John Prine’s son and a budding musician himself, led the crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” then he and Yoakam, along with the rest of the artists from the show, joined on stage for a rousing version of “Paradise,” Prine’s ode to the Kentucky county where his parents grew up.

(Writer's indulgence: My favorite John Prine story didn't come from Monday's concert. I tell it here because it makes me smile, and think of my mother's cousin Jimmy, who loved to crack a joke. Nashville singer-songwriter Todd Snider told the story after Prine died. You can find it on his new album, Todd Snider Live: Return of the Storyteller. Snider was a young artist getting a lot of support from Prine, who invited him to open some shows for him. It was Prine's tradition throughout his career to end each show by inviting the opener onstage to help him sing "Paradise." When Snider got to the stage, he nervously realized he didn't have a guitar pick, and told Prine so. Prine pointed to a bowl filled with dozens and dozens of guitar picks and said: "Use one of these." When Snider reached into the bowl, Prine said: "Not that one.")

Photo: Dwight Yoakan and Tommy Prine lead other artists, and the crowd at the Ryman, in Prine's "Paradise."

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1 Comment

Elisa Speranza
Elisa Speranza
Oct 12, 2022

How lucky you were to be at this event. Thanks for sharing this touching account.

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