A Conversation with Billy Prine

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John Prine’s “big little brother” talks about his new record, growing up with John, Steve Goodman, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, playing Rock & Roll, meat loaf, blueberry cobbler, Chicago pizza, Al Bunetta, how the song “Paradise” moved their dad more than anything ever, and more

“He had a big heart,” Billy Prine said about his brother, John Prine. “A real big heart. Sure, I know I got way taller than him. But his heart I think was bigger.”

John was seven years older than Billy, though about two feet shorter. John called him his “big little brother.”

“When we were kids,” John said, “I used to beat up Billy like any big brother does. But then I got drafted and when I came back this big guy came up behind me and gave me a big hug and said, “Hey John” with this little voice. I turned around and this fucker was 6 foot 8! I never messed with him again.”

Billy & John Prine

Billy’s got a new record out, A Place I Used To Know, which was officially released yesterday, July 10, 2020. It’s produced by songwriter-producer-guitarist Michael Dinallo, who is also co-hosting a great podcast called Prinetime for the American Songwriter Podcast Network.

The new record features a rocking take on “If You Don’t Want My Love,” a song which John wrote with Phil Spector. Billy spoke to us about that song here, and how John survived writing it with Phil.

Also, it includes Billy’s soulful rendition of John’s song “Paradise,” which he performed with John on many occasions. He spoke about the first time John played it for his family, and the impact it had on their dad.

The author-songwriter Peter Cooper, who knows a lot about Prines and songs, said about this record, “Billy sings and shines from the inside out. Unlike many things in this world, he keeps getting better.”

Billy’s new music comes inscribed with a message of love:

“This record is dedicated to my late brother John Prine, 1946-2020. All the best to The Best, Love you, Brother.
–Billy Prine, Nashville, 2020

A sampling of songs from the new album A Place I Used To Know

The youngest of the four Prine brothers, Billy was born in 1953 and grew up, as they all did, in the Chicago suburb of Maywood. Their oldest brother Dave, who was instrumental in teaching John to play guitar and learn music, still lives in Chicago.

Douglas, the second son, died in 2012.

“Doug was a policeman for about 30 years,” Billy said. “He made lieutenant in the last  ten years…. He got remarried and moved to California, which was great because I had a free place to stay in California for a while up in Sonoma County.”

Their dad, William Mason Prine, was a tool and die maker. He met Verna Valentine, their mom, near the little town of Paradise, Kentucky in Muhlenberg County where they both grew up. They’d return with their kids every summer to see family.

“When we were young,” Billy said, “me and John hung a lot. We took a lot of vacations with my mom. Then it was just the two of us because Dave was already married when I was like four, and Doug joined the Air Force in 1959.”

“So John and I really did a lot of stuff together when we were younger. But once he discovered girls in high school, that was it. I was on my own.” [Laughter]  

“Actually I’m just joking. John was the best brother anybody could ever wish for. I mean, I know his music, his songwriting, has affected so many people. But he was a great guy, a great brother. He was a pleasure to be around. He was funny. And someone I could always go to if I needed some advice on something.”

“Our father passed away when I was only 17,” said Billy, “right after  John had just finished his first record for Atlantic. My brothers kind of stepped in for the father role. I was 17 and out of high school, but we all missed our dad. I was very lucky in that sense. We did a lot of stuff together, me and John, and my other brothers, too.”

Billy, like his brothers John and Dave, had music in him always, and started playing young, drawn to blues and rock & roll.  At twelve, he was already playing in bands in and around Chicagoland and never stopped. Music led him  to Northern California, where he lived and worked for years. From there he went to Nashville, where John lived and went to work for John’s record label Oh Boy, as well as on his own musical projects. They also went out to eat a lot, as is related here.

Billy still lives in Nashville.

He also curated and produced the “Live from Mountain Stage” radio show, and also was the overnight weekend deejay on Nashville’s Lightning 100 – WRLT 100 FM. 

Michael Dinallo & Billy Prine onstage at 3rd and Lindsey in Nashville.

BILLY PRINE: My father was a big music fan. He didn’t play music, but he loved country music. And he liked to go sit at the kitchen table, after work at night, and sometimes listen to the radio. WJJD was a great country station in Chicago back then.

And John would play some Hank Williams tunes, THen he’d play one of his tunes. It might have been “Angel From Montgomery.” And my dad liked it, but finally John wrote a song for my father, called “Paradise.” When he sang that, my father was speechless. He was really touched. It was one of the most emotional looks on my dad’s face I ever saw.

When John recorded it, the record was done in Memphis at American Studios with all the great players that played on “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis, and countless other hit records. They did “Paradise.” But they used a classical violin player. And my dad told John, “You need to get your brother Dave to play fiddle on that.”

Because when they used to do the song around the house, there was always John and Dave: John singing and playing guitar, Dave singing harmony and playing fiddle. So Atlantic flew Dave to New York to record the fiddle part. I think my father might have had a little something to do with that father to son advice.

I didn’t really realize all the songs John had until I went to see him at The Fifth Peg when he first started playing out. And I just said, “Wow.” I wasn’t even aware that he had all this material. It was all really great material.

Yeah. It usually takes songwriters years before you write songs that good. He started with these masterpieces. Were you surprised?

Yes. Though it seemed natural, it was kind of surprising, but it happened so fast. It wasn’t like he was doing this for four or five years before he got discovered, or anything. And yeah, I was kind of surprised, to tell you the truth.

But then, when I really thought about it, I said, well that’s John. Because he used to like to write stories, and he was good at creative writing in high school. So it was kind of like a natural progression.

And (his songs) were definitely something I’ve never heard anyone else write about. Some of the songs, some of the subjects, they were really unique.

Did you meet Steve Goodman back then?

Yes. I loved Stevie. He was a powerhouse. He could get up in front of any kind of audience and get them in the palm of his hand after like one song.

Yes. Best solo performer ever, just one guitar and a voice. No one else like him ever.

Yeah, he was a great, great guitar player. He used to kill me when he did that old Fats Waller tune, “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”

And his guitar playing on that. He would just go off, and it was pretty amazing.

He could play the rhythm and the lead at the same time. All while dancing!

Oh yeah! It was really kind of a style of his own completely.

Steve Goodman, “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie.” Steve Goodman
Recorded Live, April 18, 1976, Capitol Theatre. Passaic, New Jersey

And it’s so unusual in this business.  Kris Kristofferson wanted to get him a record deal, and he goes, “You think I’m good? You’ve got to hear John Prine.” Who else does that?

So unusual. Stevie was like a cheerleader in that sense. John and him are very close. Really tight. He produced one of John’s best albums, Bruised Orange. And I love the stuff that Stevie did, his music. The first two records on Buddha and the stuff he put out on Asylum, too. It was a big loss when he passed away.

For a lot of people. 36 is pretty young.

He knew good songwriting. He was so excited to share your brother with the world.

I know. I remember I was invited as a guest when John was inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame. Kris Kristofferson got up and “If God has a favorite songwriter, it’s got to be John Prine.”

John was a funny guy, as you know. I saw him after a show in Santa Rosa, and he had birthday cake with ice cream. He said, “You know, every night is someone’s birthday!”

[Laughs] John loved desserts. Whatever excuse or whatever occasion, there was cake and ice cream. I remember going to a couple shows with friends who said, “First time I’ve been to a show and they have cake and ice cream after the show. That’s pretty cool.”

I said, “Well, that’s John. That’s John.”

We had a couple restaurants that we used to meet for lunch quite a bit down here. Arnold’s and another one called Wendell Smith’s Meat & Three. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one. They’re definitely a Southern tradition. They have like ten different kinds of meats and then maybe 20 vegetables. And you pick one meat, then three vegetables, and that’s your meal. And John knew what day they had meatloaf on, because he loved meatloaf.

And then we’d have lunch, and he’d look over at me and go, “Well, are you thinking about dessert? You know, they’ve got blackberry cobbler today!”

And I said, “Sure, why not. What have we got to lose?”

Wendell’s Meat and Three, Nashville.

The amount of reverence for him as a songwriter was always big, but it seems to have expanded a lot in recent years – 

Yes. Especially the last four or five years. Yes. And even at the shows, I noticed there were a lot more younger people. I definitely noticed that.

He was a humble guy. He told many stories about his songs, but never the one about playing “Paradise” for your father and how your father took it. And he didn’t write some lightweight song. He wrote “Paradise.”

I know. I think it’s still one of my all-time favorite songs by John. I have a few, but that’s the one that really hits home, because I remember going to Paradise, and the first podcast that me and Michael did is about Paradise. So, it’s a special place to John and me, and my dad loved to go down there. My mother lived there for a while before her and my dad were married, and had a lot of relatives who lived there.

And it was just a little, small country town, one general store, a post office, which was, back then, a general store. It was really a different scenario than where we grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. We were in Maywood, which was like a blue-collar suburb. Going down to Paradise was a real adventure.

In an intro to one of his songs, he said how, like any big brother. But then he realized that maybe he had better not do that anymore, because you were almost seven feet tall. You were way taller than him. How did that happen? How come you got so tall?

I don’t know what happened, Paul. Our father was around six foot. My mother was barely over five foot. My two brothers, Dave and Doug, were fairly tall. But I thought about 6’0″, 6’1″, but I kept growing after high school. I was like 6’2″ in high school, 6’3″, and then I made it to 6’6″.

But what I always thought funny was sometimes John would bring me out to sing “Paradise” with him at some of the shows.

He would say, “This is my little brother. But he’s six-foot-eight.” And I didn’t say, “No, I’m not that, I don’t want to be that. I wouldn’t want to be that tall.” I just let it roll. Because he got so much enjoyment out of saying it and everything.

Billy & John Prine, “Paradise.”

I’ve been enjoying hearing your music. You’re a rock & roll guy.

I had a couple bands in high school, and then after I graduated, I got tired of trying to keep bands together. Dealing with the guys complaining, and keeping a band together is really tough. I’m really surprised that some of these bands have stayed together as long as they have. So I decided to get an acoustic guitar and just start learning some folk songs and bluegrass songs. John had a lot to do with it, so did my brother Dave. 

You’re great at singing blues and rock & roll. I loved your version of “Let it Rock.”

I always loved that. It’s one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs. It’s a great song to open up a show with, because it really gets people rocking. It’s such a great song.

I loved John’s version of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.”

Yeah! I’m the one that turned John on to that song. This was back in the ’70s. I bought this double Chuck Berry collection, okay? It had all the hits. And I had never heard “You Never Can Tell before, but I heard it, I go, “Man! This is such a great song. I’ve got to play this for John.” 

John heard it, and he goes, “I forgot all about that song!” Then he ends up putting it on the Common Sense record. 

I don’t know, maybe I kind of ignited a little spark there, but it’s the experience of it. John always loved Chuck Berry, and I remember when we used to just jam in the basement before I even knew he wrote songs, we’d do Jimmy Reed tunes, like “I’m Going Up, I’m Going Down, Baby What You Want Me To Do…”  John would make up his own words to the verse, and I’m thinking, “This is cool.”

So, yeah. But getting back to Chuck Berry, I found out about all those guys through the British invasion. The first time I heard “Around and Around” by the Rolling Stones in ’64, I got 12 X 5 for a Christmas present. The second American album. And I just said, “Wow. This is the kind of stuff I want to do.”

I had a few little bands in grade school and high school. I even joined the Chuck Berry fan club when I was a young boy. I was a card-carrying member. I wish I would have held onto my membership card, but it got lost in the shuffle.

You turned John onto Chuck Berry. Did he turn you onto any music?

Yes. John turned me on to Bob Dylan. He gave me the Bringing It All Back Home album when it first came out for either Christmas or my birthday. And he said, “Check this guy out. I think you might dig it.” 

And then I put it on, I heard “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and I said, “Wow. This is really good.” 

So, yeah. I think maybe he was influenced by Dylan a little bit. But then he had that moniker, “The New Dylan,” when he first came out. There were a lot of new Dylans.

I love your version of “Trail of Tears.”

Thanks. “Trail of Tears” was written by Roger Cook. I met him years ago at a party. He was with Tony Hatch, who wrote “Downtown,” which Petula Clark recorded. 

We were all just sitting around singing old rock and roll songs and stuff. And Roger plays ukulele. That’s his only instrument. He wrote all those big hits on uke.

He said, “I got this song I think that would fit you perfect, Billy.” He played it, and he said, “Come to the publishing office.” He had a publishing company called Pic-A-Lic. And he said, “I’ll give you a demo tape of if you want.” So, I went down there next week, and he gave me “Trail of Tears.” And I started doing the song. I kind of turned it into my own in a lot of ways because I’ve been doing it so long.

Michael Dinallo is an excellent guitarist. And he did a really great job producing this record.  

Yes. And really gets the work done. That’s what I can say. Just really keeps on working it, man. It means a lot to me because I’m kind of a procrastinator in a lot of ways. And he’s  just a joy to be around, too. Just playing music and just hanging out, too. We really became fast friends. And boy, he’s a real blessing. Most definitely.

Do you remember how your song “Young Man Old Man Blues” was born?

I wrote that back in 1980 in California. First song I ever wrote. I was
listening to this song I really dug on the radio at the time by ELO called “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

You hear a riff here, you hear a riff there, you hear a good song, and you write one. There’s nothing completely original. I mean, it’s like Keith Richards said. It just keeps growing. It’s like a hybrid. This comes along, and then this comes off of it, and this, and this. It’s the wonder of it all.

Yes, and that’s authentic. John was connected to that. His music always had that  purity. Just a few chords, but that’s all you needed. And now, after all the stuff we’ve been through, it really is a nice feeling hearing that purity. Your music, too, like his, has that. It’s authentic.

Well, thank you. And that’s just what I do. That’s what I enjoy doing. I don’t really listen to a lot of new stuff. Not that I’m not saying it’s not good, I just don’t take the time to sit down and really listen to it. Because there’s so much great stuff. I’m always listening to stuff that came out 20, 30 years ago when I’m listening to music for my own enjoyment.

I knew Al Bunetta who was John’s manager for a long time. Al also was a true champion for John.

Oh, I loved Al. We had a friendship going back to when he was John’s age, and he became John’s manager. I worked at Oh Boy Records for nine years.

Working for Al, and also Dan Einstein, who was Al’s right hand guy back then. I learned a lot about the insides of a record label, about music management and the business. Al was a great guy to hang out with. I used to love meeting him for lunch and talking.

He always said, “Billy, you know so much about music.” He said, “ I’ve been in this business since the ’60s, and you know ten times as much as I know.” 

I said, “Well, thanks, Al. I have a habit of just remembering things that I really love.”

Al appreciated people with passion for music. And for John. But he was a real old-time manager. He’d go after every show and count every single dollar with the ticket guy.
 

Oh yeah, man. He worked for the agency, and they gave him John and Steve Goodman to manage. Paul Anka was managing John and Steve, but Paul wasn’t really doing much except collecting the manager’s percentage. And Steve and John both loved Al because he was like a street guy, like they were. And they loved hanging out with each other, so they decided, hey, let’s get Al as our manager. 

Al didn’t miss a trick, and he loves Stevie and loved my brother very much. And he did everything that he could to ensure that they played good places and that their records did well. Starting those indie labels they did was probably one of the smartest moves they ever did.

They were some of the first, and at first it was Red Pajamas, and then John started Oh Boy! but they both did very well. Oh Boy did really well. I think Red Pajamas would have too, if Stevie would have been around a couple years to record some more stuff. Oh Boy was voted the  #1 indie label a couple of times. I was proud of that, and so was John.

Al was also the funniest guy I knew. He always had the best jokes. But sometimes he would get them mixed up and tell you the punch line before he’d say the rest of it. But he was a great guy, and I miss him a lot. I really do.

I know John did too. They were good buddies, I know.

Yeah, a long time, man. That’s a good run for people to have a partnership like that for 40 years.

John Prine, “Billy The Bum”

You said “Paradise”  was one of your favorite songs by your brother. Are there others?

Yeah. I really like “Old People” a lot. Also “Chain of Sorrow.”

What else? I like that song he wrote on Diamonds in the Rough called “Billy the Bum.”

I also loved a song on the album Picture Show called “Way Back When.” 

But I liked it all. I love “Angel From Montgomery,” “Far From Me,” “Sam Stone.” I could go on and on. There’s such a wealth of stuff that he did.

It is amazing, isn’t it, that he could write songs while delivering the mail?

I know. It’s amazing. It really is. They used to have these big drop boxes that looked like mailboxes, but that’s where the mailman would drop some of the mail later, just so he wouldn’t have to carry all his piles around. He said when it rained sometimes, he’d get in the drop box just to get out of the rain. He’d get back in there and he’d start thinking of songs. 

I’d like to see a picture of that.

Like most Chicagoans I know, you and John are both humble, funny people. When he got famous and successful, did he just stay the same guy, or did he change at all?

No, he was always the same John. But he’s my brother. That’s the way I looked at him. I mean, all the fame and everything was great, but it was still him.  John was John, and I was myself, and we were brothers. I mean, that was always the bottom line,  okay?

Well, he was your big brother for a while there, but then you became the bigger brother.

[Laughs] Yeah. But you know, he was always there for me. In every way.

When he went in the Army, my voice hadn’t changed. But then when he got out two years later, all of a sudden there’s this tall boomy voice going, “Hey John, welcome home.” And he had to do a double take. He said, “You’ve grown up!” 

I said, “Well, you’ve been gone for two years. I mean, come on.”

Yeah, but he didn’t expect you would grow up that much!

Yeah.

Some songwriters sing their own praises. John did the opposite. He always said, “If I’m working on a song, and someone says they want to go get a hot dog, I always get the hot dog.” It was a way of making fun of himself.

Yeah. Oh, he loved that. I expect anytime that we hooked up in Chicago, the first thing we’d do is go get an Italian beef sandwich. But then the next day we’d get a hot dog, and then a pizza, all the good Chicago food. I’m always bragging about the food in Chicago because it’s all so good. Especially the pizza. It’s a must. When you’re there, you got to have it.

I know. My son and I get Chicago pizza first night we’re there. Lou Malnati’s. I’m getting hungry now.

Me, too. Wish I had some pizza in the house.

It’s been great talking to you. So glad there’s another Prine bringing out music. There’s so much love for John, and for the Prine family. So many fans everywhere and with such real love for the music and the spirit in it. So we’re grateful you’re keeping the music alive. 

Well, that means a lot because his fans, they’re all good folks. I’ve met a lot of them. I’m in contact with quite a few of them that I don’t really know that well. But it’s all good. It’s all good.

Thanks Billy. Hope to see you sometime soon out in the world. 

Yeah, me too. I hope we can hook up sometime and maybe play a couple songs, Paul. That would be fantastic.

See Billy’s premiere of his single “If You Don’t Want My Love” here.

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