In 2020, the music world lost a songwriting legend with the death of John Prine.
Now, his son Tommy Prine performs live at City Winery in D.C. on Tuesday night.
“Being able to tap into that creative space is to tap into the same thing that many have done before us,” Prine told WTOP. “I do recognize that my father is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, to do it. … There are times I’m writing where I feel like it’s almost him helping me along with certain lines or a certain phrase. I’ll just feel a nudge.”
City Winery will hear cuts from his very first album, which he hopes to release this fall.
“I’ll play a whole bunch of them that are on the record,” Prine said. “I always joke with the crowd that I’m going to play some old stuff and new stuff — but it’s all new to you! … It’s finished and I love how it’s sounding, but I just have to tie up some stuff on the back end to make sure everything is good to go on the launch. … I’m super proud of it.”
One of his favorite tracks on the album is called “I Love You Always.”
“It’s a song I wrote for my fiancee, Savannah,” Prine said. “I wrote her a song when we first started dating to try to impress her … but I was thinking that we’ve been together for a little over three years, we’re getting married in June, so I was like, ‘I feel like I should write a new song for her.’ … I wrote her a new song and loved it so much I put it on the record.”
You’ll also hear “By the Way,” his tribute to his late father.
“I wrote it about losing my dad,” Prine said. “All the regrets and feelings, so it’s definitely a heavy topic, a heavy song, but it’s something that I felt that I really needed to put on the record because I’m stepping out into the world as my own man, my own artist, but I have to acknowledge the elephant in the room that I lost my dad and the world lost John Prine.”
Born in Nashville in 1995, Tommy Prine grew up not realizing his dad was unique.
“I remember being a kid and my mom being like, ‘Do you want to go see dad tonight?'” Prine said. “I remember sitting backstage and watching him and everyone’s partying, having a good time. … In my mind, I just thought that’s what adults did, you just picked an instrument and played it for people on stages. That was as normal as cooking breakfast.”
Having a famous father is a double-edged sword, because it meant Prine didn’t get to see him as much.
“When you have a parent who is a professional musician, they can’t be home all the time,” Prine said. “I remember telling him when I was 5 or 6, I said, ‘I love ‘Fish & Whistle,’ and he was like, ‘Cool, I’ll play it every night when you’re at the show.’ … He was definitely gone a lot when I was younger, but when I got older, I got to go on the road with him.”
Upon doing a deeper dive, he realized his dad was a songwriting genius.
“I went through different phases of classic rock, metal, System of a Down, Outkast,” Prine said. “When I was 17, my mom was like, ‘You should listen to this record ‘Southeastern’ by this dude Jason Isbell … it’s Americana like the stuff your dad makes.’ … Ever since that, listening to my dad’s music, I was like, ‘Oh my God. This dude is so good!'”
It’s the same epiphany that Roger Ebert and Kris Kristofferson had in 1970.
“Roger Ebert was the first big, very positive review that he got,” Prine said. “Kristofferson ran into Steve Goodman, who was like, ‘Hey man, if you enjoyed my song, you should go see my buddy, John. … Really late at night, Kris walks in at like 1 in the morning. He was like, ‘Play me six songs’ … then Kris was like, ‘Play them again.’ … The rest is history.”
His 1971 debut featured the gem “Sam Stone” inspired by serving in the Army.
“The first time I heard it, I had no idea what it was about because I was a child and the harrowing story of a drug-addicted vet didn’t land for me when I was 7,” Prine said. “When I learned what that song was about and really listened to it again, it hit me the same way it hit everyone else in the world like a sack of bricks. It’s a heavy song, but it’s beautiful.”
The album also featured the timeless classic “Angel From Montgomery.”
“That one specifically is a great example for how easily my father could put himself in other people’s shoes,” Prine said. “Throughout all of his songwriting and all of his music, he’s able to show empathy, a common understanding in the human experience. If everyone could agree that my father could do that, that was the prime example.”
If aliens came down, which song would he pick to showcase his work?
“I’ve always loved his storytelling ones like ‘Lake Marie’ and ‘Jesus, the Missing Years,'” Prine said. “That stuff is much more him. Even when you talk to him, he would be a storyteller. … So those two songs I would have to put as contenders for our alien friends. ‘Knocking on Your Screen Door’ is also one I would totally show … this is what we make.”
His personal favorite songs change depending on where he is in life.
“Different records from dad’s discography speak to me in different phases of my life,” Prine said. “I went through a couple of his earlier records like ‘Missing Years’ and ‘German Afternoons’ for a while. ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ has been really big for me in recent years because it’s the most recent way I can tap in with my father since he’s passed.”
Through it all, his father’s lyrics speak to the everyman.
“One really interesting thing about my dad’s music is you don’t have to be a super creative person for his music to take you on a journey,” Prine said. “You don’t have to have an imagination that easily runs wild for his music to paint pictures in your mind and take you somewhere. I think that’s one of the most significant things about my father’s talent.”
Nobel laureate songwriter Bob Dylan sang the highest of praises: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the N’th degree.” Fittingly, he received the Grammy Life Achievement Award just months before his death from COVID-19.
“I’m very grateful that he got to experience that, because I can’t think of anyone else who deserves it more than him, especially for a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting and being an artist,” Prine said. “That’s the criteria right there — it’s him.”