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 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.
This week I’ll hit the road to talk about John Prine: In Spite of Himselfin 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.
There’s a line Bob Dylan sings in “Mississippi” that could be taken as a comment on the work he was doing at that time: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” The song appeared on what would turn out to be a late-career masterpiece – even if Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album is now almost old enough to vote.
The line applies equally well to John Prine’s new late-career masterpiece, The Tree of Forgiveness, out today. His voice and songwriting will never equal what they were in Prine’s heyday as a New Dylan, during the waning days of the Nixon administration, but his fans couldn’t ask for a more engaging, delightfully wry album from Prine 40 odd years later.
Like “Love and Theft,”The Tree of Forgiveness is a mordant reflection on death and dying that’s great fun to listen to, Grandpa gleefully dishing dirt to the kids at a family reunion – or maybe a wake. While Prine’s new record has its bleak moments (the mid-album “Summer’s End” and “Caravan of Fools” in particular), they’re surrounded by steady flashes of his trademark wit, warmth, surreal imagery, and sheer joy at being alive. Prine has survived cancer scares and lost a steady stream of friends and loved ones (some referenced by name in the closing cut, “When I Get to Heaven”), and while he clearly sees the Grim Reaper lurking in the shadows, he mostly flips Death the bird and goes about his business across the 10 tracks of The Tree of Forgiveness.
This is Prine’s first album of new material in well over a decade, following a duo album of chestnuts with Mac Wiseman, his third live album, a collection of early demos and radio appearances, a vinyl reissue of his classic 1991 album The Missing Years, and – most memorably – For Better, or Worse, the 2016 sequel to his classic 1999 album of duets with female singers, In Spite of Ourselves. It was a worthy followup, despite breaking no new ground. I’m quite happy to report that my assumptions about the death of Prine’s songwriting muse were completely unfounded. (Though he’ll be 84 if he waits another 13 years to follow up this one.)
The first few listens to The Tree of Forgiveness haven’t revealed any masterpieces, to my ears, but it’s an album full of the stuff of Prine legend, from the downhome imagery of “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” the lead track, to “When I Get to Heaven,” a jug band romp about the afterlife. That final track includes spoken-word passages reminiscent of 1990s Prine classics such as “Jesus the Missing Years” and “Lake Marie,” a playful dig at music critics (“those syphilitic parasatics”), and this memorable passage:
I always will remember the words my daddy said He said, “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead” I hope to prove him wrong
Prine sounds more reverent than ever on The Tree of Forgiveness, even with his customary irreverence never more than a couplet or two away. “When I Get to Heaven” is a laundry list of the things Prine wants to do in the afterlife, from smoking a cigarette nine miles long to catching up with his late brother Doug, parents, and maternal aunts (“’cause that’s where all the love starts”).
Several old friends and one comparatively new one helped Prine write these songs. He has been collaborating with most of these guys for decades: Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, and Keith Sykes. McLaughlin co-wrote “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” the Prine song with the most memorable title since “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone.” It’s a lightly rollicking reflection on mortality worthy of another wry songwriter who routinely laughed in the face of death, the late Warren Zevon.
One song, “God Only Knows,” was resurrected from a memorable writing session 40 years ago with Wall of Sound producer-turned-convicted murderer Phil Spector. (Prine and Spector also co-wrote “If You Don’t Want My Love” from 1978’s Bruised Orange at that time.) But Prine and McLaughlin penned “Caravan of Fools” with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who was born the year Prine’s sixth album came out. “Boundless Love,” a sweet song with Prine backed mostly by a subdued organ, is a kissin’ cousin to the title track of the singer’s 1984 album Aimless Love.
There’s no mistaking the ravages of time and health problems on Prine’s voice, which was never what you’d call dulcet in the first place. But he and producer Dave Cobb (who has worked with a host of Prine acolytes, from Sturgill Simpson to Jason Isbell) wisely hang it out there in all its ragged glory, with spare accompaniment relegated almost entirely to the background. Name guests Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile barely register as anything more than background vocalists, hired guns. From beginning to end, The Tree of Forgiveness shines the spotlight on Prine’s lyrics, workmanlike melodies, and joyous croak.
Prine sounds simultaneously old as dirt and fresh as a spring flower on The Tree of Forgiveness. It’s easily his best album since The Missing Years 27 years ago, and a welcome surprise half a century into a career never lacking in cheery surprises.
Southern 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.
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.”
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.
In 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.”