One of America’s greatest songwriters was born on this day in 1946 at Westlake Hospital, in Maywood, Illinois. A few of his fellow singers and songwriters joined forces to mark the occasion. Happy birthday, John!
This 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.
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.
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.”
Tomorrow is the big day! My first reading for John Prine: In Spite of Himself, starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street in Durham. Joining me to sing a few Prine songs will be Elliott Humphries, talented front man for the Americana band be the moon. (Keep an eye out for their excellent forthcoming album Golden Age.)
The Regulator actually helped me discover John Prine’s music. In the mid 1980s I used to make regular trips there to buy Dave Marsh’s independent music newsletter, then called Rock & Roll Confidential. (Eventually I discovered the magic of subscribing by mail, but I was always glad to have an excuse to go hang out at The Regulator.) I bought my first Prine album, 1984’s Aimless Love (which also happened to be the first album on Oh Boy Records), after reading a review in an issue of Rock & Roll Confidential I bought there.
Al Bunetta, John Prine’s manager for virtually his entire career, died last night. My condolences to his family and friends.
It’s here! Today is the official release date for John Prine: In Spite of Himself, now available on the shelves of your favorite bookstore. The book has actually been in circulation most of this month — friends have been reporting getting copies in the mail over the past week and a half.
The subject of my book and the older brother who first inspired him to pick up the guitar have both been busy preparing new releases. Oh Boy Records will release a limited-edition, vinyl-only John Prine live album for Record Store Day, April 18. It’s called September 78 after its recording date, from a show Prine played with a full band at Park West in Chicago. This Bruised Orange-era concert will be released on orange vinyl. It features a badass cover photo from that era of Prine wearing shades, and a version of “Treat Me Nice,” a song by one of his boyhood heroes, Elvis Presley.
Prine also makes an appearance on a new album by a singer who got started in the Chicago folk scene years before him: 77-year-old Tom Paxton. Frequent Prine producer Jim Rooney (Aimless Love, German Afternoons, John Prine Live, In Spite of Ourselves) was in the control room at the Butcher Shoppe, the studio Prine co-owns in Nashville, to make Paxton’s Redemption Road. The album just came out on Tuesday. Prine joined his old friend to sing a verse on “Skeeters’ll Gitcha.”
“If he called me, I’d be there in a heartbeat,” Paxton told broadwayworld.com. “That’s what friends are for. To sing a verse in a silly song.”
Fiddlin’ brother Dave, meanwhile, has reunited with his old National Recovery Act partner, Tyler Wilson. They’re joined by Jim Chesney in another old-time band with a name (BluEagle String Band) and album title (We Do Our Part) similarly inspired by FDR-era New Deal programs. The album showcases such vintage country and bluegrass tunes as “Hello Stranger” and “Eight More Miles to Louisville.”
Don’t forget: I’ll make an appearance on “The State of Things” on WUNC radio at noon on Tuesday to talk about my book. The show will be broadcast live from the Upstage Cabaret at Triad Stage in downtown Greensboro.