My tribute to John Prine.
My tribute to John Prine.
My tribute to John Prine.
Son of a gun
Hot dog bun
My sister’s a nun
Thanks for a lifetime of wonderful music.
October 10, 1946 –
April 7, 2020
Exciting news for John Prine this week: The Grammys announced that they’re giving him a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award at next year’s ceremonies. He is part of a diverse class of recipients that also includes Chicago, Roberta Flack, Isaac Hayes, Iggy Pop, Public Enemy, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Grammys have honored Prine three times previously: He won awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album for The Missing Years (1991) and Fair and Square (2005), and he was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015.
There’s also some exciting news about my book, John Prine: In Spite of Himself. Four years after its original publication, and two years after the release of a paperback edition, Audible has released an audiobook version. Nick Sullivan, a veteran audiobook narrator and character actor who grew up in Tennessee, has done a great job turning my words into an entertaining listen.
If you’re looking for an easy last-minute holiday gift for a music-loving friend or relative, look no further!
If a writer’s lucky, a book takes on a life of its own out in the world. Four years after its original publication and two years after the paperback version hit the streets, John Prine: In Spite of Himself continues to take me to unexpected places. One of them was my ancestral homeland: Spartanburg, South Carolina. (My mother’s family was from nearby Anderson.) I headed down I-85 from Greensboro recently to attend my first trade show by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) and talk about the book.
But this was no ordinary reading: It was a gathering of phenomenal talent brought together by Shari Smith of Working Title Farm in Boone, North Carolina. She began her TRIO project in 2015, and invited me to participate for its final year in 2020. Here’s how Shari describes TRIO: “One book is given to both a songwriter and a visual artist. They write a song and create a work of art inspired by the book they read fulfilling their TRIO. Each TRIO will travel to museums, galleries, and literary events throughout the following year.”
The TRIO 2020 launch at SIBA showcased those books, songs, and pieces of art, with the audience treated to performances by the likes of Rod Picott, Kay and Patrick Crouch (new friends I met through Shari), and John Jorgensen. John’s a legendary guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who has toured or recorded with everyone from Johnny Cash to Luciano Pavarotti. He also happened to play on one of Prine’s best albums, The Missing Years. Radney Foster was on the bill for Spartanburg as both an author and songwriter, but a dental emergency forced him to cancel at the last minute. Other authors for TRIO 2020 include Rodney Crowell, Shari herself, Dixie Gamble, Nicole Sarrocco, and Tamara Saviano, whose Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark was recently named one of “Ten Essential Music Biographies.”
The Spartanburg event gave me my first glimpse at the paintings created by Marianne Huebner, which beautifully capture the earthy, deceptively simple nature of Prine’s songs. Songwriter Sarah Aili recorded a gorgeous, impassioned version of Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” to round out my part of TRIO 2020.
The SIBA show in Spartanburg was just a warmup. Watch the TRIO Facebook page for gatherings across the Southeast in the coming year.
There’s another exciting new development with John Prine: In Spite of Himself that’s not quite ready for unveiling. For more on that, watch this space.
Veteran Atlanta rapper Jermaine Dupri planned to bring his So So Def 25th Anniversary Cultural Curren$y Tour to the Greensboro Coliseum. Those plans fell through, so the story I wrote after interviewing Dupri never got published. Here it is, with reflections by Dupri about his label’s long history, his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his TV reality shows.
When Jermaine Dupri and the artists he has nurtured take the stage at the Greensboro Coliseum Oct. 25, the hits will come the same way they arrived over the past quarter century: one after another after another, in chronological order.
“The tour is designed the same way I put the music out,” Dupri said from his home base of Atlanta. “I want you to digest the concert the same way people digested the music when they bought it.”
He founded the So So Def record label when he was still a teenager. The So So Def 25th Anniversary Cultural Curren$y Tour reunites Dupri with a host of his one-time proteges: Xscape, Jagged Edge, Anthony Hamilton, Youngbloodz, Da Brat, Bow Wow, Dem Franchize Boyz, J Kwon and Bonecrusher.
“I didn’t break all of my artists off of each other, but I did break them off of one brand, that brand being So So Def,” said Dupri, who was born in Asheville in 1972 but grew up in Atlanta.
Kris Kross was another early Dupri success story: He discovered the duo in an Atlanta shopping mall in 1991 and produced their 1992 debut album, “Totally Krossed Out.” The song “Jump” topped the charts for eight weeks, the first time a rap single had such a long run at the top. The death of Chris Kelly from a drug overdose in 2013 ended the duo’s career.
The Source magazine called Dupri “One of Atlanta’s most imperative craftsmen” when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June. “Dupri shows no signs of slowing down as he continue to pen his way to the top,” according to the Songwriters Hall of Fame’s website.
His induction as only the second hip hop songwriter in that hall of fame signals a shift in American popular culture, Dupri said.
“People are acting like that’s so amazing,” he said. “It is amazing – don’t get me wrong. But it’s also time changing. It’s a time thing where I make hip hop and R&B music, and that has taken over the music business. So it’s only right for me to get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
Besides “Jump,” Dupri has had a hand in writing No. 1 hits by Usher (“My Boo,” “Nice and Slow,” “Confessions Part II,” “Burn” and ” You Got It Bad”), Mariah Carey (“Don’t Forget About Us” and “We Belong Together”), Nelly (“Grillz”) and Monica (“The First Night”).
Other hits on Dupri’s resume include the Jay-Z collaboration “Money Ain’t a Thang,” Carey’s “Shake It Off,” Xscape’s “Just Kicking It,” Da Brat’s “Give it 2 U” and Jagged Edge’s “Where The Party At.”
Dupri has been nominated for several Grammy awards, and won in 2006 for “We Belong Together,” the Carey hit he helped write and produce. The song was a number one hit on and off for 14 weeks, giving it the second-longest run at No. 1 in the history of U.S music charts.
The Grammy Museum just opened an exhibit called “Jermaine Dupri and So So Def: 25 Years of Elevating Culture,” an overview of the label in the context of Atlanta’s music scene.
The 25th anniversary of his label has inspired Dupri to reflect on its cultural impact and the history he has been a part of. Including “Cultural Curren$y” in the name of the So So Def anniversary tour is a part of that.
“People weren’t treating artists with longevity with the respect that I felt like they should,” Dupri said. “So somebody had to start making people realize what it feels like. Artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, they feel like money to me. I feel like I couldn’t breathe without a Michael Jackson record, I couldn’t live without Prince. It becomes as important to you as currency. As opposed to dollar culture, it’s cultural currency.”
The rap mogul has put his stamp on American culture in other media, as well. He and Queen Latifah teamed up to create “The Rap Game,” a hip hop reality series on the Lifetime network now going into its fifth season. The latest season of “Growing Up Hip Hop” features Dupri and his family.
He sees a divine purpose behind his success.
“I look at my career now and I feel like God put me in these spaces to make records with these people for a reason,” Dupri said. “It created the cloth of Jermaine Dupri. I made a record with Jay-Z before Jay-Z was the Jay-Z that you guys know now. I feel like these were heaven-sent activities. I definitely believe that God implemented a lot of these things.”
Music fans in North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad have had the good fortune for years to have regular opportunities to hear the Vagabond Saints’ Society. The all-star band, led by Doug Davis, pays tribute to great artists from rock history, including Prince, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Cheap Trick, and many others. For January and February 2019, they made their most ambitious plans to date: a show of Tom Waits songs they would take to venues from Wilmington, N.C., to Johnson City, Tenn. Mitchell Snow, a VSS veteran from the group’s early days, returned from his current home in Toronto to handle the bulk of the lead vocal duties.
Unfortunately, a medical emergency intervened. Snow had a cardiac emergency a few songs into the first show in Johnson City. Some quick-thinking medical pros in the audience helped save his life, and he’s now recovering after surgery and doing well. The VSS had to cancel the rest of the Waits shows.
Which meant Go Triad, the weekly entertainment section of the News & Record and one of my regular writing outlets, no longer had any need for a story about the Greensboro show VSS had planned at the Crown in the Carolina Theatre. Here it is, a preview for a show that never took place:
Mitchell Snow heard the comparisons so often that he avoided singing Tom Waits songs for years.
“When I was a teenager, I thought if I could marry Bob Dylan lyrics to Howlin’ Wolf music, that would be really interesting,” Snow said. “Well of course it was, because somebody had already done it. I didn’t know that at the time.”
Snow has finally embraced the stylistic similarities – at least for a few concerts. He will handle the main vocal duties when Winston-Salem’s Vagabond Saints’ Society (VSS) returns to Greensboro Feb. 1 for a show of Waits songs in the Crown at the Carolina Theatre.
VSS has been around for well over a decade, paying homage to some of the biggest names in popular music history (Prince, David Bowie, the Beatles) and more obscure favorites (XTC, the Velvet Underground). A core group of musicians led by Doug Davis plays behind a stream of guest singers.
Most of their past performances have been in and around Winston-Salem, though VSS has brought two previous shows to the Blind Tiger in Greensboro: Tom Petty and Chicago. For Waits, they’re doing a full-fledged tour that includes the Crown show as well as performances in Johnson City, Tenn., Wilmington, Raleigh, Charlotte and the Ramkat in Winston-Salem Jan. 26.
“Most of our shows are designed to be community projects,” said Davis, who performs regularly with the Plaids, Magnolia Green and the Solid Citizens. “It’s not in our nature to want or need to take it out on the road. But a show like this is a little bit less of a community show and a little bit more of a showpiece. We just decided that it was unusual enough and it might have enough cachet that it might be of interest.”
Waits released his debut album in 1973 and has recorded a couple dozen records in the 46 years since. He is also an actor who has appeared in films such as “Rumblefish,” “Down by Law” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the recent collection of Western shorts by the Coen Brothers on Netflix.
Thom Jurek summarized Waits’s sound for the All Music website: “In the work of American songwriter Tom Waits, swampy blues, Beat poetry, West Coast jazz, Tin Pan Alley, country, 1930s-era cabaret, and post-Civil War parlor songs meet neon-lit carnival music, and the wheezing, clattering, experimental rhythms (often played by makeshift musical instruments from car radios to metal pipes and tin cans …) form a keenly individual musical universe.”
Davis’s “showpiece” characterization comes from Waits’s unique style combined with Snow handling most of the lead vocals (along with acoustic guitar). Snow is a Davie County native and founding member of VSS who played in several bands with Davis, but he moved to Toronto years ago after marrying a Canadian woman.
This will Snow’s first time back with VSS in nearly 10 years. He previously sang lead on shows featuring the songs of other performers with distinctive, unconventional vocals: Bob Dylan and Nick Cave.
“I am the worst singer in the Vagabond Saints, easily,” Snow said. “But this will be the third full show that I have sang fronting the band, which is more than anyone else has ever done.”
Other members of the band include Davis on guitars and vocals; Randall Johnson on standup bass; and Corky McClellan on drums and percussion. Davis usually concentrates on keyboards, but guitarist Jerry Chapman couldn’t make the Waits tour, so Davis shifted into the guitar slot.
The keyboard player for the Waits shows is Jack Gorham, a High Point resident who manages Collector’s Antique Mall in Asheboro. He first played with the group in 2016 when VSS honored “The Last Waltz,” the farewell concert by the original lineup of The Band.
Like Snow, Gorham has been compared to Waits without previously knowing his music.
“Listening to this music, and listening to the lyrics and listening to the structure, I can see why people have said that to me,” Gorham said. “In hindsight, I didn’t realize what a high compliment I was getting. I feel like I’ve been introduced to an old friend.”
As much as he appreciates the comparison, writing his own keyboard parts for the songs has been a challenge. Gorham will play piano, organ, accordion and an instrument new to him: marimba.
“I was familiar with ‘The Last Waltz,’ and I knew what I was getting into,” Gorham said. “This is much different. The writing style is pretty far flung. It’s got everything from songs that sound like Klezmer music to New Orleans to real American folk to something that sounds like it could come out of the American standard jazz book. It’s an amazing collection of music.”
The Waits shows will begin with a brief overview of Waits’s early music and feature a series of guest vocalists from the cities where VSS is performing. Snow will take the mike for the rest of the show, a deep dive into the albums Waits has made beginning with such early 1980s classics as Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs.
“It’s all when he got weird, onward,” Snow said.
This week I’ll hit the road to talk about John Prine: In Spite of Himself in the North Carolina mountains, then return home to Greensboro this weekend to talk about it some more – with some friends helping out in Greensboro by singing a few Prine songs. I’ll be in good company from the highlands to the Piedmont, yakking with veteran musicians and producers Jim Rooney and Chris Stamey, as well as authors Elaine Neil Orr and Emily Edwards.
Up first is the annual conference for the Southeast Regional Folk Alliance, which takes place in Montreat, N.C., May 16 – 20. At 4 p.m. Thursday I will have the great honor of joining Jim Rooney for a panel called “Writing About Folk Music.” Prine fans will recognize Rooney as co-producer of some of the singer’s finest albums, including Aimless Love, German Afternoons, John Prine Live, In Spite of Ourselves, and For Better, or Worse. He also managed the legendary Club 47 in Cambridge in the mid ’60s, served as director of the Newport Folk Festival, and produced the first New Orleans Jazz Festival 50 years ago. Rooney’s memoir, In It for the Long Run: A Musical Odyssey, is an entertaining and enlightening look back over an incredibly diverse career.
My adopted hometown will host the first Greensboro Bound Literary Festival May 17 – 20, featuring such luminaries as Daniel Pink, Naima Coster, Stacy McAnulty, Carmen Maria Machado, Kevin Powers, Beth Macy, Nikki Giovanni, and John T. Edge. I will participate in two events on Saturday. At 2 p.m., a panel on writing memoirs and biographies will pair me with Elaine Neil Orr, author of the 2003 memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life. She also wrote the novels A Different Sun and Swimming Between Worlds – the latter set in Winston-Salem in the 1960s.
A musical event will help close out the festivities Saturday night. At 8:30 p.m. I will join Chris Stamey, legendary musician and producer. Highlights of his long and varied career include co-founding the dB’s, power-pop pioneers from Winston-Salem by way of Hoboken; releasing a series of acclaimed solo albums; and producing albums for Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo, Tres Chicas, and others. He recently published a memoir, A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories. It’s part of the same American Music Series from the University of Texas Press that produced my book.
After a brief Q&A with me, Stamey will read from his book and play some songs, accompanied by cello and violin. Then Emily Edwards and I will read from our books and offer up music courtesy of our friends Sam Frazier, Big Ron Hunter, and the duo of Skip Staples and Bob Costner. Edwards’s second book, Bars, Blues, and Booze: Stories from the Drink House, was published by the University Press of Mississippi. I wrote about it in 2016 for UNCG’S Research magazine.
By the way – the Greensboro Bound events are all free! See you there.