Tommy Prine walks in giant footsteps onto the Bijou stage
“I Always Will Remember These Words My Daddy Said…”
“My style is a mistake.”
With that simple admission, the legendary songwriter John Prine summed up a life in music that most artists would die for. When he spoke these words, he was in a vintage guitar shop in Nashville, holding a priceless 1943 Gibson J-45.
He joked, “I swore one day I was going to get a guitar with only three frets.” But it wasn’t a joke. When you know your limits, you don’t have any.
Last month, Nashville turned out as only Nashville can, filling every seat at the Ryman Auditorium and every square inch on stage to celebrate John Prine’s 76th birthday, two years after the ultimate enigma’s death. Diet ginger ale and Smirnoff’s flowed like wine. The performers included Jason Isbell, Chris Isaak, Nathaniel Rateliff, Bonnie Raitt, Shawn Camp, Leyla McCalla, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, and Dwight Yoakam, among many others.
The evening culminated a weeklong observance of Prine’s glaring absence in the everyday life of Music City, where it was not uncommon to run into America’s favorite songwriter at Walgreen’s or Kroger or Bojangle’s. He was everybody’s best friend, even as his self-effacing modesty guarded the most prolifically talented master of American creativity. He was Mark Twain with a guitar, and he was the guy behind you in line at Whole Foods. As everyone said, if you knew John Prine’s songs, you knew John Prine.
A week after this Prine Time celebration, I got an email from a Nashville press agent asking if I’d like to see Tommy Prine at The Bijou Theater in Knoxville, opening for Todd Snider, and offering a chance to interview Tommy about a debut record. he’s polishing for release in early 2023.
“Sure,” I said, to both.
How would you like growing into manhood, womanhood, adulthood, making decisions about what to do with your life if your father is John Prine? Or Bob Dylan, John Lennon, or Nat “King” Cole? That’s pressure with a capital “P.”
Jakob Dylan has done well. Julian and Sean Lennon have no business on stage. And Natalie Cole was Natalie Cole. So, DNA can stand for “Do Not Assume” as easily as it can mean “Dad’s Name is Awesome.”
Leonard Cohen and Adam. Willie Nelson and Lukas. Lenny Kravitz and Zoe. Ravi Shankar and Anoushka … and Norah Jones. Johnny Cash and Roseanne. Jaco Pastorius and Felix.
Hank Williams I, II, and III. Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley. Loudon Wainwright III and Rufus.
If only Dolly Parton had about a dozen kids.
John Prine had two sons, Jack and Tommy, with his wife Fiona Whelan. He also adopted Fiona’s son Jody. Jody manages Oh Boy Records. Jack and Tommy, born just 10 months apart in the same calendar year (1995), have both set their sights on performing the songs they wrote. Its got to feel like dancing across a minefield.
Guess which one of John Prine’s sons studied at Pellissippi State.
Tommy Prine called me two weeks ago at the appointed time, and his thoughts came as easily as his father’s smile. Tommy made that point right away: there was John Prine the performer, and there was his dad. What kept the public figure and the private human in balance was his family. That balance is what made John Prine so unique, so approachable, and an instant friend to everyone who knew him.
I would love to have known John Prine like the fortunate artists he allowed to get close, like Shawn Camp, Alejandro Escovedo, Iris DeMent, and Robert Earl Keen. Laughing with John Prine must have been a very special high. I hope his son learns how to make people laugh.
It will be interesting to see Tommy Prine at The Bijou (7 pm Wednesday), because you’ll know immediately whether he’s serious about being in show business. It’s not the kind of career you just dip your toe in to see if it feels right. You’d better be committed. The litmus test will come a few seconds before he sings his first verse.
No one ever approached a microphone the way John Prine did. When he came out of the wings to start a concert, before he opened his mouth, he’d stand three or four steps upstage of the microphone, tuning his guitar, thinking, centering himself. And then he stepped forward, decisively, with purpose, and he delivered, like Tiger Woods addressing the ball before putting it in from 80 feet.
If Tommy Prine approaches the mike like Tiger Woods ready to putt, and if he’s anywhere near as lyrically creative as his dad, there is much to look forward to from this young man.
For the past two years, he’s been keeping it all pretty close to the vest. Word has it that a complete album of Tommy Prine songs is in the can. But all he has released so far is two songs that aren’t even on the album. One of them packs a punch that would make John Prine say, “Whoa, didn’t see that coming.”
The song is called “Ships in the Harbor.” In true Prine fashion, it’s just a voice and a guitar, wandering down a path that’s as inevitable and perfect as a walk at sunrise along an empty bridle path. Simple, plaintive, and aching. The first few verses build the title’s metaphor, of sailing vessels at anchor, resting but bound for who-knows-where when the tide and the breeze say “go.” Leaving soon, as they do.
And then, before you know what hits you, he hits you.
“It takes time to know when you’re wrong / It takes even longer to put it all in a song / And I wish it was easy to / Like he did.” He who?
“When I’m by peaceful waters / it gets harder and harder / and I’d do anything / just to talk to my father… / But I guess he was leaving soon / as we do. / Yes I guess he was passing through / And I am too.”
I told Tommy Prine something I didn’t anticipate I would. I said, “You’re 27, and I just turned 70, but we have something in common. We both lost our dads when we were 25. And that line in your song, that’s as sneaky as any song lyric I’ve ever heard. That line made me realize I had something important to tell you. My father died 45 years ago, and sometimes, when it rings, I still think I’m going to hear my Dad’s voice when I answer the phone.”
Unlike Tommy Prine, I can hear my father’s voice only in my dreams. My dad didn’t record 200 songs that define the parameters of Americana music. “And I’d do anything / just to talk to my father…”
Can you imagine saying “Oh yeah, my father wrote ‘Angel From Montgomery.’”?
It’s good that Tommy Prine has looked this right in the eye, because he’s gonna hear his father’s voice as long as he lives. You’ve got to come to terms with it. “Ships in the Harbor” does just that.
At The Bijou, Tommy Prine is opening for Todd Snider, one of the best storytellers to ever use a guitar as a prop. What a great pairing. If I could find a babysitter, I’d be there in a heartbeat. I’ve got three kids under 10. But I’m not looking for a babysitter, ’cause at my age, time with my kids is too precious to trade. For anything. For anybody.
Like John Prine says: “I’ve been down this road before / Alone as I can be / Careful not to let my past / Go sneakin’ up on me.”
John Job is a longtime Oak Ridge resident and frequent contributor to The Oak Ridger.