Sing a song for Scuppernong

scuppernong-books-sign-downloaded-09-07-2016Southern Living magazine recently named Scuppernong Books in downtown Greensboro one of the “South’s Best Bookstores,” and its Words of Note series is one of many things that make it a special place. The good folks at Scuppernong have been kind enough to ask me to return for a reading on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m. Two of North Carolina’s finest singer-songwriters (and frequent collaborators), Molly McGinn and Sam Frazier, will join me to sing some John Prine songs.

I am honored to share the mike at Scuppernong with a number of other music book authors, including David Menconi, one of my editors for John Prine: In Spite of Himself and a fellow author in the University of Texas Press’s American Music Series. David will speak Friday, Sept. 9, about his book Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, which launched the series in 2012. Other writers at Words of Note will include Penny Parsons – who I worked with regularly when she was a publicist at Sugar Hill Records – talking about her fine new biography Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life and Music of Curly Seckler, and Emily Edwards, a UNC-Greensboro media studies professor who will read from her Bars, Blues, and Booze: Stories from the Drink House.

The Words of Note series at Scuppernong is part of 17 Days, Greensboro’s annual arts and culture festival, and coincides with the second year of a three-year run by the National Folk Festival in downtown Greensboro. I can’t think of many places I’d rather be, music-wise, than Greensboro in September.

Meanwhile, there has been some big news from Prine lately. His first album of newly recorded material in nearly a decade, For Better, or Worse, will come out Sept. 30. It’s a sequel to his beloved 1999 album In Spite of Ourselves, and like that collection features Prine performing classic country duets with female singers. A couple of singers from In Spite of Ourselves are back for the new album (Iris DeMent and Prine’s wife, Fiona), but most of the cast is new, including veteran performers such as Kathy Mattea and Alison Krauss joined by relative newcomers such as Miranda Lambert (who covered Prine’s “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round” on her Revolution album in 2009) and Kacey Musgraves (a rising star who paid tribute in her song “Burn One with John Prine”).

Finally, Prine and another acclaimed singer-songwriter who also began his career in the 1970s, Tom Waits, have been named this year’s winners of the prestigious PEN New England’s Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Awards. They are scheduled to receive the awards Sept. 19 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Rosanne Cash, a member of the nominating committee, told Rolling Stone, “They’ve contributed definitive works to the American canon. That’s basically it. You can’t imagine a broad version of the American songbook without the songs of these people.”

Eddie and Eddie on the air; Prine turns down Bill Murray

My latest radio interview about John Prine: In Spite of Himself is online and ready to stream. I sat down with Eddie Garcia, a producer for WFDD, the NPR affiliate at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., to talk about Prine’s life and music and the process of writing the book. (Garcia is a fine musician in his own right – he plays in a rock band called 1970s Film Stock, and he previously played in a duo called Jews and Catholics.) Listen to Triad Arts Weekend online or catch a broadcast of the show at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6.

IA_Very_Murray_Christmas_postern other news, Prine had to decline an invitation to perform in Bill Murray’s highly anticipated new holiday special on Netflix on Demand, “A Very Murray Christmas,” according to one of the show’s writers, Mitch Glazer, a music journalist turned screenwriter, and a longtime Murray collaborator. Glazer told the Albany Daily Star they plan to include Prine “if and when we do another one.” “Bill and I saw him in Charleston,” Glazer said. “We wanted him to go but he had hip surgery.”

Murray, like Prine, grew up in the Chicago suburbs. Prine was friends with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in their pre-“Saturday Night Live” days with Chicago’s Second City, where Murray also got his start in comedy. Belushi, Prine has said, “used to come around over to the Earl of Old Town when they had breaks at Second City – Belushi’d come across the street. And when we had breaks, we’d go watch Second City. Belushi used to do Marlon Brando singin’ my songs” – including “Angel from Montgomery.”

PrineFest West coming to Winston-Salem October 29

PrineFest West tribute poster 10-22-2015Some of the finest singers and songwriters in the North Carolina Piedmont will join me for another tribute to John Prine October 29, this time at Coffee Park ARTS in downtown Winston-Salem. I will introduce a few songs with passages from John Prine: In Spite of Himself, but the musicians will be the stars of PrineFest West.
Come join us!

Martha Bassett ● Caleb Caudle ● Doug Davis ● Dan Dockery ● Sam Frazier ● Jack Gorham ● Elliott Humphries ● Ken Mickey ● Tyler Nail ● Bruce Piephoff ● Laurin Stroud ● Lee and Susan Terry ● Skip Staples ● and more!

Books & Beer @ Fearrington Village

Menconi David Ray Benson book cover 10-06-2015This week I’m finally emerging from hibernation (AKA a bunch of big freelance projects that kept me burning the midnight oil all summer) to talk some more about John Prine: In Spite of Himself. The festivities start at 5 p.m. Thursday at Roost, the beer garden at Fearrington Village south of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and continue through 8 p.m. I was invited to join the party by one of my editors on the Prine book, David Menconi, who has a new book out himself.

David’s latest is an as-told-to Ray Benson memoir called Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel. Elliott Humphries, front man for Be the Moon, will join us to sing songs by Prine and Ryan Adams, subject of David’s previous book, Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown.

Come on out! Admission is free, and there will be plenty of craft beer on tap.

Alone in his room with his radio on

Eric Alper

John Prine: In Spite of Himself has made the rounds on radio shows this summer. This weekend you can catch me on satellite radio talking to music-biz veteran Eric Alper (@ThatEricAlper), who did PR work in Canada for years for Prine’s label, Oh Boy Records. Alper interviewed me for his radio show out of Toronto, and it airs on SiriusXm (@SiriusXMCanada) Channel 167 on Saturday, August 1, at noon, 4 and 11 p.m., and Sunday, August 2, at 6 a.m., 11 a.m., and 7 p.m.

In July, Leigh Paterson of Wyoming Public Radio interviewed me about a lawsuit against Peabody Energy that quotes from the lyrics to “Paradise,” where Prine sings about “Mr. Peabody’s coal train” hauling away a beloved town in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. His parents were born and raised around Paradise, and Prine and his brothers spent summers there as children. Peabody has asked a judge to strike Prine’s lyrics from a lawsuit filed by protesters.

Back to Muhlenberg County

Best James as Jim Lindsey on The Andy Griffith Show 04-07-2015
James Best as Jim Lindsey on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

James Best, a native of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, like John Prine’s parents, died last night at 88. He was probably best known from “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the goofy rural comedy that ran on CBS Television from 1979 to 1985. Best portrayed Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (not to be confused with Mr. Peabody’s coal train). “The Dukes of Hazzard” debuted the same week Prine started recording his Pink Cadillac album in Memphis.

Sparsely populated Muhlenberg County spawned a rich and curious mix of 20th century celebrities. Best was born Jewel Franklin Guy in Powderly, a town between Greenville and Central City. He was a first cousin of the Everly Brothers: His mother, Lena Mae Everly Guy, was the sister of Ike Everly, the brothers’ father. (Prine’s maternal grandfather, John Luther Hamm, played guitar and fiddle, sometimes accompanying Ike Everly.) Ike’s older son, Don, was born in a Mulhenberg County coal-mining camp called Brownie in 1937 — 20 years after country music legend Merle Travis was born down in Rosewood.

Best had retired to Hickory, North Carolina, about two hours west on I-40 from where I live. When I visited Muhlenberg County two years ago this month while researching John Prine: In Spite of Himself, one of the people kind enough to fill me in on the area’s rich musical heritage was Joe Hudson, executive director of the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame. Hudson was friends with Best and would drive down to North Carolina occasionally to visit.

My favorite Best character was Jim Lindsey, the musician he portrayed on a couple of episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.” He was the on-again, off-again guitarist for Bobby Fleet and his Band with a Beat. (Thanks to the magic of black-and-white television, Best’s character could make electric-guitar sounds with an unplugged acoustic, and play rhythm and lead simultaneously in a fashion never dreamed of by the thumbpickers back home in Muhlenberg County.) Best also appeared in several horse operas over the years, as well as a few “Twilight Zone” episodes and the movies “Shenandoah,” “Sounder,” and “Ode to Billy Joe.”

Annother veteran of Western movies, character actor Warren Oates, was born outside Greenville in Depoy in 1928. He appeared in several Sam Peckinpah films (“Ride the High Country,” “The Wild Bunch,” “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”), a series of TV Westerns (“Rawhide,” “The Virginian,” “The Big Valley,” “Gunsmoke”), Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” and the 1981 Bill Murray vehicle “Stripes.” Music fans may remember him best as the nameless driver in Monte Hellman’s 1971 cult classic “Two-Lane Blacktop,” which pitted Oates’s GTO against the ’55 Chevy piloted by singer-songwriter James Taylor (“The Driver”) and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (“The Mechanic”) in a cross-country road race.

Oates and Prine crossed paths in Los Angeles, according to Warren Oates: A Wild Life, a biography by Susan A. Compo: “Oates had met musician John Prine at Dan Tana’s. Oates was a great fan of Prine’s song ‘Paradise,’ about a disappeared town in Muhlenberg County.”