One fateful day at a Kroger in Nashville, singer-songwriter duo Annalyse & Ryan were stocking up on snacks and toiletries when something caught the corner of Annalyse’s eye.
“She pointed at this guy in a dirty white t-shirt, carrying Scope mouthwash and avocados in his hands, and looking at some oranges I believe,” Ryan recalls over the phone with American Songwriter. Annalyse interjects, “It was one of those things where you have too many groceries in your hands, but it’s too late to grab a cart.”
It struck them immediately that they were standing in the presence of the legendary John Prine. Scurrying up to him like crazed fangirls, the two artists share a similar account of the introductory moment, describing him as a “super down to earth guy.” They assume he was recovering from his throat surgery because he had the bandage wrapped in the area. In the aisle, the three exchanged a few pleasantries as he explained he was buying groceries to hit the road for Kansas City to begin a tour run. Captivated by the surreal encounter, Annalyse & Ryan did not even mention their own musical careers. Instead, they just ruminated at the moment.
“We told him we were fans of his work and just kind of talked for a minute,” she adds. “Then we said thanks and goodbye. And he said, ‘You guys have a blessed day.'”
The exchange was brief, yet intoxicating for the two artists and fervent followers of his enduring imprint as a storyteller. Quarantined at home last April and not yet desensitized to the chaos unfolding outside of their window, Annalyse & Ryan were devastated by the news that the virus had taken yet another hero too soon.
“We tell the story often,” says Ryan. “When we’re about to play a Prine song we’ll briefly say, ‘We have such a great time meeting him once in Kroger’ and audiences like it. So the story’s been around, but we weren’t really inspired to write a song using that until he passed away.”
On October 8, just two days before what would have been the icon’s 75th birthday, Annalyse & Ryan released a touching tribute to the late-legend, “Singing With Angels.”
Lyrically, the emerging artists follow close in the footsteps of Prine’s disarmingly simple, yet quick-witted way with words. Scope & avocados / A smile and a nod / I’m off to Kansas City / By the good grace of God, Ryan begins with deep, steady vocals that nearly mirror Prine’s groveled tone. Annalyse’s entrance in the second verse immediately adds levity to the lush soundscape. Cindy Cashdollar—a fellow musical resident in their Hudson Valley community —lent her Grammy Award-winning pedal steel mastery to the track, conjuring up the ethereal sentiment of passing from this world to the next.
“That’s exactly what happened when we met him, but the song isn’t about meeting him,” says Ryan. “It’s a song about the passing of a songwriter, the passing of the spirit.” Annalyse adds, “It’s also the idea of singing with angels is that the song lives on in the people who continue the stories and the traditions.”
As purveyors of age-old American roots music traditions, Annalyse & Ryan are part of the reason Prine’s impact will live on in perpetuity.
Within their duo, he is a melody and groove guy, and she is the resident lyricist. Often the two come together with half-finished ideas and as a pair develop the etchings into fully realized sonic concepts. This process was a departure from their usual routine. Crushed by the news of Prine’s death, the two sat in their grief for a moment before they began collaborating in what they described as a “true co-write.”
Wielding their cherished memory at the Music City grocery, the duo expanded the only minutes-long moment into something broadly resonant.
“I think John Prine has so much to teach but never with advice,” says Annalyse. She points to his storytelling as a critical lesson learned from years of careful listening. The first song she remembers singing on stage as a 9-year-old in rural Kentucky was “Angel From Montgomery,” and it set the standard for her early on as a songwriter.
“The word storytelling, that is something that we really try to focus on with all of our songs,” she adds. “Even when we’re writing from a very visual, we see the story, what’s happening. So something that we’ve always just so admired him for is telling the stories that are in between the lines—the small moments that that really make up what actual life is like for people.”
Annalyse points to a pivot line in the song that speaks to the ascendency of music traditions: The life of a player / it ain’t easy to hold / It slips through your hands / It takes a hold of your soul. As the writer, she says, “that kind of defined that the impermanence of the artist, but then it takes a hold on your soul. So it’s like the art kind of transcends that.”
Release show at Towne Crier Cafe, Beacon, NY – Oct 8.
Harvest Festival at Madison Beach Hotel, Madison, CT – Oct 17.
The Vinyl Room, Beacon, NY – Oct 21.
Daryl’s House Club, Pawling, NY – Oct 30.