Tommy Prine Talks Pilgrimage Set, New Album ‘This Far South’

Tommy Prine is one of the many enticing acts slated to play this year’s Pilgrimage in Franklin, Tennessee. The intimate festival began in 2015 and has since seen some pretty big names. This year’s lineup boasts headliners Zach Bryan and the Lumineers. Prine counts it as a “dream show” as he gears up to hit the Americana Music Triangle on Sunday, September 24.

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Prine is, of course, the son of the legendary singer/songwriter John Prine. He has been coming into his own as an artist over the last year or so, flexing his own chops in the songwriting department. His music captures his personal journey of grief, growing up, and falling in love.

American Songwriter caught up with Prine prior to his set at Pilgrimage to get the low down on what makes the festival so special and his latest release, This Far South.

American Songwriter: Firstly, I want to talk about Pilgrimage. What makes that festival special?

Tommy Prine: Pilgrimage is one of those dream shows that I’ve been looking at doing since I started touring. It feels like a hometown show and the lineups there are huge. It’s cool to be a part of the select few that get to play there. It’s really cool to see my name on a lineup with a bunch of folks I admire. It feels like a solid milestone.

AS: Do you have any particular artists that you’re excited to see?

Prine: I’m always excited to see Margo Price, she rocks. I haven’t seen Zach Bryan yet, so that will be fun. I think he’s playing the same night that I am. The War and Treaty are good buddies of mine so [I’ll go see them].

AS: Let’s jump into talking about This Far South. Can you talk about working with Ruston Kelly and Gena Johnson?

Prine: It was one of the honors of my life to be able to work with my two closest friends. I don’t think I would’ve been able to make a record like this with anybody else. I think with how close I am to both of them, they were able to usher me into this chapter of my life. I can only hope that all other artists get an experience like this–to be able to work in the studio with some of their closest friends.

Gena was one of the first people outside of my family that physically gave me a space as a singer-songwriter. She would let me come over to her house and work in her studio. Ruston was really the first person to give me the outside validation that I felt I needed before I began pursuing music. I’ve really looked up to him so when he gave me the green light, I felt unstoppable. Looking back on it, it was a dream scenario.

AS: You talk about “baring your soul” on this record. Do you think there is one source of inspiration that this whole album boils down to? What’s the overarching message?

Prine: Absolutely. The way I look at it is it’s an introduction of Tommy Prine to the world. All of these songs are just a collection of stories and life-changing moments. All of the things that formed me into the man I am today.

I think it’s a great starting block for my life and my career. It’s a way for people to get to know me and get some context of who I am and the things I’ve been through. It’s a great place for me to build off of.

AS: Can you talk about the inspiration behind the opening track, “Elohim?”

Prine: That song came from a lot of anger. I lost my best friend in 2017 and then three years later, I lost my dad. After that, I struggled with my belief in anything larger than myself. It’s kind of the age-old question, “Why me?” I figured out all at once that life is extremely unfair. I think I took my anger out on my belief system. I wanted to start the record with the place that I used to be and then [follow it up] with how I grew.

AS: It’s a powerful track. Do you have a particular line that really resonates with you from that song?

Prine: Absolutely. I think the most important part of that song is towards the end where I sing, I hate this part of me / But I don’t believe in what I can’t see / Except my friends I’ll always miss / And all the painful shit I can’t forget. I think that’s really an important part of the song because it puts the rest of it into perspective.

It’s not me proudly declaring that I currently don’t believe in God. It’s a song about how I used to feel and the anger that I had towards a higher power. That line to me switches the whole perspective of the song.

AS: On the opposite end of the spectrum, can you talk about “I Love You, Always?”

Prine: That is a song for my wife Savannah. To put it simply, she changed my life. When I met her I was a fraction of the person that I wanted to be and I didn’t know how to get there. She was the key to the door that I needed to go through. I wanted to end the record on that note. We’ve only been married for a year now, so it seems like a current spot to end the record on, so that I can move forward from there.

AS: With this album being a documentation of a year in your life, how do you connect to some of the older songs that were written from a place you’re not in currently?

Prine: I connect with those songs from a place of healing. I did a lot of that healing process while writing the album. Now that I’m performing them, I think I have kind of a bird’s eye view of what I was really feeling. They are very raw, personal songs, but now that I’ve had some time away from writing them, I have a sharper perspective.

AS: I also wanted to dip into your journey as a songwriter. How did you get started in songwriting? Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

Prine: I think the first song I ever wrote was called “Caroline.” It wasn’t about anyone specific. I was just writing a generic love song, I suppose. I’ve always been interested in writing. In school, creative writing was my favorite thing to do. Every subject was horrifically boring to me, except for writing. Looking back, I guess that was a bit of a sign.

During some of those traumatic experiences, I found my default was to write about them. That turned into writing songs. It felt like the best way to get my emotions out.

AS: What’s the best songwriting advice you’ve ever been given?

Prine: That’s a two-parter. First, I think whatever is honest. I think that is a really important aspect of songwriting. I think it’s pretty easy to tell when you hear a song if there isn’t any truth from the writer.

The other part is some advice that my dad gave me. When I was a teenager I asked him, “If you could tell me in just a few words, how do you write a song?” We were at The Pancake Pantry [in Nashville] and my dad got the kids menus that they will have at certain restaurants that come with crayons. He flipped it over and drew some grass and a stick figure and he said, “That’s how I write a song.”

He said, “What do you see?” I said, “I see some guy on some grass and it’s a sunny day.” He said, “Exactly, you need to get a picture out in very few words.” I didn’t fully understand it until several years after that.

Photo by Emma Delevante / Courtesy of IVPR

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