It’s safe to say that many musicians in Nashville wouldn’t be plucking away at a banjo or rosining up their bows if it weren’t for John Prine. For a singer/songwriter, a figure doesn’t get more colossal than him—his lyricism is unmatched and his songs remain a magnum opus for musicians the world over.
Following Prine’s death in 2020 (damn you, covid), an outpouring of grief and tributes to the icon quickly spread across the world. Survived by his widow, Fiona Whelan, and his three sons, Tommy, Jack, and Jody, a more formal homage to Prine began to take shape: You Got Gold, a series of concerts, pop-ups, and special events scattered across Nashville all in an effort to fete the late, great hero of Americana.
Though the tribute might seem overdue, it is in many ways right on time. To coincide with what would have been Prine’s 76th birthday (Oct. 10), it’s hard to imagine his family could have amassed the group of musicians that are currently flocking to Music City in recent pandemic-stifled years. The streets of Nashville will indeed be painted gold this week (Oct. 7 – 12) with his music flowing out of every corner.
Sunday night (Oct. 9), American Songwriter was privy to the first of two “You Got Gold” shows at the historic Ryman Auditorium. As a testament to how far-reaching his impact is in music, only Prine could bring Keb’ Mo’ and Kurt Vile together and make it seem as natural as rain—mutual admiration is a great equalizer.
The show at the Ryman opened with Tommy Prine taking the stage. Even if the audience wasn’t familiar with Tommy before (though unlikely given their die-hard Prine fan status), there wasn’t any mistaking whose son he was—both by his uncanny looks and his raspy vocals.
Alone on the stage, he crooned out the lyrics to “Souvenirs,” the first of many somber moments of the night. Though there was plenty of levity—with John Prine’s humor, it’s impossible to escape —his songs were given a new air following his death.
Broken hearts and dirty windows / Make life difficult to see / That’s why last night and this morning / Always look the same to me, Tommy sang, adding a new tinge of heartache to an already whistful classic.
Grounding the whole night, was Prine’s backing band. As many artists remarked throughout the night, the musicians were probably the ones who knew the icon the best, save his family. They also intimately knew the discography, adding something innately Prine to the mix.
The night rattled off with one artist taking the stage after another. Among the line-up was Alejandro Escovedo, who gifted Prine his iconic pocket watch and sang Prine’s 1986 track “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”; The Secret Sisters, who gave a classic two-part harmony rendition of “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”; and Josh Ritter, whom Prine always “loved to have on the bill” singing “Mexican Home.”
Keb’ Mo’ took the stage soon after telling a few tales about his time with Prine and remarking that his song of choice, “Please Don’t Bury Me,” was tailor-made made by Prine for “an occasion like this.” The buoyant, shuffling tune was as infectious as it ever has been with the crowd joining in on the chorus, Please don’t bury me / Down in the cold cold ground / No, I’d druther have ’em cut me up / And pass me all around.
Elsewhere, Lucius, an indie pop group with lead vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig, came out with a lulling version of the titular song of the evening, “You Got Gold”; John Paul White, of The Civil Wars, remarked that Prine was his model for both a great musician and a great man, singing “Far From Home” without a backing band in tow; Steve Earle brought distinct bluegrass tasters to the evening singing “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round.”
One thing that was made perfectly clear on this night (not to mention we still have three more nights to go) was just how many great songs Prine wrote in his career. Right up until the end, his lyricism never faltered.
The songs chosen by the tributes illustrated the wide breadths of Prine’s career. While Natalie Hemby sang “Angel From Montgomery” taken from his stellar debut, Elizabeth Cook sang “Lonesome Friends of Science” from his final LP. Both are adroit vignettes of life from both a 20-something novice and a time-honored legend.
As the night went on, the line-up became more and more star-studded with Joe Henry, Jim Lauderdale, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings all lifting their voices for Prine’s honor. Regardless of how recognizable the name was, the crowd was handing out standing ovations left and right, clearly feeling very moved hearing these tracks live.
Toward the end of the night, Nathaniel Rateliff and Valerie June gave a tongue-in-cheek cover of “In Spite of Ourselves,” before Rateliff gave a solo performance of “Summer’s End.” Mary Chapin Carpenter took things for a nostalgic turn with “I Remember Everything,” while Swamp Dogg gave “Sam Stone” an R&B flavor.
Just as he had opened the night, Tommy came out to close things down. “Being the youngest Prine, I’ve been to my fair share of John Prine shows. He liked to close out things the same way each time, by bringing some friends on stage, so that’s what I’m gonna do now,” Tommy remarked as the whole billing came out for one last hurrah.
Seeing the artists that spanned generations and genres all across the stage moved both the audience and Tommy who took over lead vocal duties on “Paradise” while his friends and family joined in on the chorus.
With so much love in the room for such a singular force in music, we venture to guess that Prine was smiling down on the evening with a cigarette that’s nine miles long in one hand, a vodka and ginger ale in the other, feeling he has more blessings than one man can stand.
Photos: Harrison Haake/AmericanSongwriter