With John Prine song-writing is A WALK IN THE PARK

With John Prine song-writing is A WALK IN THE PARK

by Norman Warwick

Llana Kaplan, writing in Billboard in 2021, revealed how John Prine´s widow and son were planning to preserve his musical legacy via his own label, Oh Boy Records.

When John Prine (left)died from complications related to COVID-19 in April 2020 at the age of 73, the indescribable loss of the revered folk singer-songwriter echoed across a community of fans and artists alike. Prine’s passing also left his legacy — and the future of his label Oh Boy Records — in the hands of his widow, Fiona, and their son Jody Whelan. Ever since, they’ve been working tirelessly to keep it alive. “It was a lot,” says Whelan over Zoom from the Oh Boy office in Nashville.

He’s not exaggerating: The pair have been planning to not only celebrate the life of the beloved Prine, but also the 40th anniversary of the label he led. COVID-19 has upended their plans, including pushing the weeklong series of concerts and events for Prine that were supposed to happen in Nashville this month to October 2022. However, there is plenty to keep them busy, including Souvenirs: Celebrating the Life and Songs of John Prine with Family and Friends, a livestream tribute on Oct. 4 that Prine’s family and friends from Ireland will host, featuring performances from Mary Black, Paul Brady, Pat Crowley, Mette Jensen, Ruth McGill, Paul Mulligan, Ciaran Tourish, Prine’s youngest son Tommy, and more.

Plus, tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol. 2 — a follow-up to 2010’s Vol. 1 set of Prine covers — comes out Oct. 8. The plan was always to release more of these cover records, but “they just got kicked down the road,” says Whelan. Vol. 2 features Brandi CarlileSturgill Simpson, Bonnie Raitt, Nathaniel Rateliff, Margo Price, John Paul White and other artists performing Prine classics.

“There’s enough songs for a third and fourth volume, so we’ll be releasing them over the next year-and-a-half,” Whelan told the Billboard journalist and now, in 2022 it is all neginning to take shape.

Prine and his manager and business partner Al Bunetta (who died in 2015) founded Oh Boy in 1981, after Prine’s contract with Asylum ended. Following a handful of smaller projects put out by Prine, Oh Boy released its first full-length album with Prine’s 1984 LP Aimless Love. Despite multiple offers throughout the years, Oh Boy, distributed by Thirty Tigers/The Orchard, has remained staunchly independent. And Prine was just the beginning: Artists including Todd Snider, Kris Kristofferson (right), Kelsey Waldon and Arlo McKinley have released music via Oh Boy (and that’s not even counting the label’s many classic country reissues).

Fiona Prine and Whelan find comfort in preserving the late musician’s legacy.

 “We had an enormous loss, but the gift is commensurate with the loss,” says Fiona. “What he left for us is a huge responsibility, and we take it very seriously.”

While Prine would never come to the office, he had his hands in all decisions in the background — from choosing his crew to every piece of merchandise. And being in control of his art, like owning all of his masters in the post-Atlantic and Asylum days, was necessary for Prine.

While Fiona Prine is the president of the label, Whelan handles day-to-day operations. Fiona remains “very conscious” of Prine’s catalogue of songs:

 “They’re at the core of his legacy, who he was as a man, who he still is as an artist, what he can still teach us and how we can comfort us with his words,” she told Llana Kaplan.

Over the past 18 months, the pair have fielded inquiries for synch licenses for film and TV. The cast of the NBC drama This Is Us, for instance, are huge fans of Prine, and have since used several songs throughout the past few seasons. 

“The world is still hungry for John Prine,” says Fiona.

One of the main goals in preserving Prine’s legacy is to just keep an eye on Oh Boy’s catalogue, to ensure Prine’s music continues to reach a wider audience in the years to come. At the moment, Fiona and Whelan don’t control any of the masters before 1981; that includes Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut (released via Atlantic Records), which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015 and features iconic songs like “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise,” “Sam Stone” and “Hello In There.” Whelan says, they can’t address the legalities, but that there are on-going conversations when it comes to accessing them.

For Whelan, part of the legacy is continuing Oh Boy’s initial mission: working with songwriters and singer-songwriters to get their music out. Coming down the pipeline are albums from Waldon, McKinley and Emily Scott Robinson (see her Oh Boy debut album shown left)

“Prine’s catalogue and legacy will never not be the central piece, but I do think that the way forward that he showed [is] supporting performing songwriters — and being genre-agnostic is something that we’re really excited about,” says Whelan.

Preserving Prine’s legacy also comes from taking the time to just think or talk about him.

“He was the quietest one at the table, but we still miss him,” says Fiona.

Since they were not fully been able to celebrate Prine’s life in-person because of the pandemic, Whelan has found comfort in the online community that loved him.

“Hearing that people in the industry, fans or other artists are still engaged and want to talk about him makes me feel less alone,” he says. Whelan has found catharsis in listening to Prine’s songs: “It’s the 50th anniversary of his first record, so we’re going back and listen to that even more.”

In addition to the above mentioned, there are other events tied to Oh Boy’s anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Prine’s self-titled debut. A three-part documentary detailing the label’s history unspooled over several months on YouTube, with the third part airing in September. To commemorate his 1971 Atlantic classic album, a box set featuring a live recording from AmericanaFest in 2016 — the only time Prine played it front-to-back — will be released via Oh Boy next spring, as John Prine Plays John Prine. The box set will feature CD, vinyl and DVD versions of the performance, and a portion of the sales will go to the Americana Music Association Foundation.

While Prine has been long-beloved by fellow artists, Whelan says it wasn’t until the last few years that his father truly “felt that respect and love” fully for the first time.

“Not every singer-songwriter had that moment,” says Whelan. “We got to go to the Grammys for his Lifetime Achievement Award [and he was inducted into the] Songwriters Hall of Fame.”

A younger generation, including Kurt Vile, Kacey Musgraves and Bon Iver were also expressing their appreciation.

 “I think he got to experience and understand how much help he could give younger artists because they would thank him,” says Fiona. “And it didn’t happen once or twice, it happened hundreds of times.”

As Prine came to further understand his impact on younger artists, he took it upon himself to encourage one of his contemporaries to help them, too. In the January before he passed, Prine called the late Nanci Griffith (right) to tell her how much he admired her, and how she could mentor “in particular some of the young women that were coming up.”

“He said, ‘I know you, you’d be able to show him how to write a darn good song, Nanci,’” Fiona recalls. “I was surprised — but again, nothing about John would really surprise you.”

The news comes as part of a dedicated effort by local parks to update existing county offerings, explains noted spokesperson and committee member for the John Prine Memorial Park, Karen Harper Lain. The updated park will also include a new boat ramp, increased parking, a pavilion for picnics, new playground equipment, and improved landscaping.

And Prine has connections to the area, too. The stalwart songwriter, who passed away in 2020 after complications from COVID-19, wrote the song “Paradise” for his dad about the small town of Paradise, which is on the banks of the Green River in the state. The song, from Prine´s 1971 told of landscape he as a bou had shared with his dad but was now ravaged and ruined by commercial exploitation and subsequent neglect.

The official opening of the park earlier this month was full of laughter and music and John´s widow, Fiona, spoke eloquently (left) about John and his legacy.

photo 1 The song has been recorded by numerous artists over the years: John Denver, the Everly Brothers, Lynn Anderson, Roy Acuff, Dwight Yoakam and even Johnny Cash all recorded versions of the song.

Unfortunately the playlists of my memory since I turned seventy seem to be locked on Random Shuffle. I truly cannot remember if I was even aware of John Prine at the time I first heard Paradise. I´m pretty sure that was at the first Everly Brothers reunion concert at Wembley. Their harmonies on the song were so beautiful but they captured the pathos and anger of the song, too. It is still, to me, right up there with ´the very best of The Everly Brothers recordings.

Upon his passing, many of ´John Prine´s fans began pilgrimages to Rochester Dam, which is noted in “Paradise,” so that they could leave memorials to the fallen star, musician and performer.

As such, Lain and others who are interested recently approached the Muhlenberg County Fiscal Court about the idea of renaming the park after the artist’s death, and, Lain said, those officials were “immediately on board,” according to news outlets.

In other Prine news, the legendary singer is one of several artists, including Patsy Cline, (left) who is a 2022 Music City Walk of Fame inductee.

Prine and Cline, along with Dr. Paul T. Kwami, musical director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and industry executive Ed Hardy, were all inducted and honoured during a special ceremony on Oct. 10.

“Each of these four inductees left an enduring mark on Music City, and their influence continues today,” said Kevin Lavender, board of directors of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp, in a statement. “The Music City Walk of Fame is proud to pay tribute to these legends with their induction, and we are especially honoured to have their family members attend to accept on their behalf.”

Prine’s widow Fiona Prine, accepted the honour on his behalf, which was presented by Country Music Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee (right), while Cline’s daughter Julie Fudge will accept the honour for her mother.

The last Americana  concert I saw was in England in 2015. I think, just before we retired here to Lanzarote, and so it was probably also the last authentic piece of live American I shall ever see. The gig was at The Royal Northern College of Music and how wonderfui it was that the artist performing was a man with a familiar voice on my playlist, someone about whom I had written about in several publications but had never seen play live. Here was John Prine now though, in the UK, old, and recovering from a severe illness but indominatable. His humour was still of long soliloquys that rambled down sidetracks and detours before reaching their destination. His observation of life and its characters was still acute and his songs were precisely the right balance of sadness and piquancy and sheer joy that I had been hoping for.

We had taken with us our friends, Catherine and Harry Coward to whom we had introduced John Prine´s music two or three years earlier. They enjoyed the show just as much as we did, and I think I earned a house point from Harry for proving that this Americana really is the best music in the world.

Of course, we were reminded by the concert that Paradise wasn´t Prine´s only song to be interpreted by others and taken to commercial success. Among many other similar successes, too, was the beautiful waltzy I Just Want To Dance With You by George Strait.

In the UK the song was perfectly suited for the family entertainer Daniel O´Donnell who had a Top Of The Pops appearance and chart entry with the song.

Miranda Lambert had a hit with John Prine´s That´s The Way The World Goes Round, or what had long become otherwise known as the happy enchilada song for reasons that Terry Wogan would have appreciated with his love of mondagreens.

Prine´s collaboration with his mate, Steve Goodman, on You Never Even Called Me By My Name was a hit for David Alan Coe.

Don William lent his soft vocals to Love Is On A Roll in such a way that what was written by John Prine became a trademark Don Williams.

Of course, Bonnie Raitt cut Angel From Montgomery in 1974 and has since said the song is more important to her body of work than any other song. Dozens of artists have covered it on albums and during live shows over the last 45 years, including Miranda lambert in a fireside performance, making this easily Prine’s most well-known song.

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