Rebeat when necessary

rebeat magazine header 03-12-2015

The official release date for John Prine: In Spite of Himself is only three days away! A couple more nice writeups showed up this week. Chicago-based Carey Farrell reviewed it for Rebeat: “Huffman doesn’t mince words about Prine’s more unfortunate lyrical, production, or even fashion choices, but his admiration and affection for the songwriter shine through on every page.”

Across the Atlantic, Martin Chilton wrote about the book for The Telegraph, compiling a list of “10 things we learn about Prine from the biography.”

Huffman Eddie Mike Smith Prine show WQFS Guilford College Greensboro NC 03-10-2015
Community DJ Mike Smith (left) and me in the booth at WQFS, Guilford College, Greensboro, NC.

Thanks for the coverage, folks! And thanks again to Mike Smith for having me on his WQFS radio show on Tuesday. It was a hoot. Catch me on the airwaves again this coming Tuesday during my St. Patrick’s Day visit appearance on WUNC’s “The State of Things,” broadcast live from the Upstage Cabaret at Triad Stage in downtown Greensboro.

Airin’ of the green

WUNC public radio logo 03-06-2015

The producers of “The State of Things,” hosted by Frank Stasio on WUNC radio, have asked me to appear on the show on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. It’s a terrific program that airs weekdays at noon, with a rebroadcast at 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The show covers culture, politics, history, and more, and I’m honored to get a chance to go on the air to talk about John Prine: In Spite of Himself.

My appearance will come during one of the show’s periodic excursions away from its Durham home base to Greensboro, where it broadcasts live from the Upstage Cabaret at Triad Stage. You can attend the broadcast in person – click here for more info.

But Mike Smith still gets first dibs – I’ll join him on WQFS at Guilford College to talk about the book at 10 a.m. this coming Tuesday, March 10. (Rumor has it a few athletes from Greensboro Roller Derby may appear for a few minutes that morning, as well, which could leave me scrambling to come up with roller derby-themed Prine songs. Thanks for the added pressure, Mike!)

A new reading has also been added to the calendar: April 2 at Vinyl Perk in Carrboro. I’ll drop the needle on some Prine vinyl (henceforth to be known as “Prinyl”) and share the stage with musical guests, including Jefferson Hart.

More book reviews, news stories, and readings are also in the works. Watch this space for more information.

The sincerest form of flattery

Lavengood Mark 01 Michigan Prine tribute tour organizer March 2015
Mark Lavengood

The upcoming John Prine Tribute at Doodad Farm in Greensboro, scheduled for May 17, is one of several Prine tributes around the country. Some, such as the Mid Ohio Valley Americana Music Tribute Series and the John Prine Shrine Tribute show at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, have become annual traditions.

A group of Michigan musicians has added a new twist: They’re doing an entire Prine tribute tour.

“His repertoire is so expansive and cuts through to the core of human emotions,” tour organizer Mark Lavengood, Dobro player for Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle. “I fell in love with John Prine and his work late in college. I’ve always wanted to set up a stretch of John Prine tribute shows.”

Read My Lips

Prine tribute Doodad Farm poster segment 02-26-2015

Almost time for my bootheels to be wanderin’, as Bob Dylan sings. The first readings for John Prine: In Spite of Himself  have been scheduled in central North Carolina:

Readings will be a new experience for me, and I’m still working out the details. At this point my plan is to talk about researching and writing the book, read a few passages, answer questions, and have some musician friends join me. Additional public appearances are in the works.

But wait – there’s more! Mike Smith, curator of Greensboro’s At Home Folk Art Gallery, has invited me to appear on his radio show on WQFS at Guilford College at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 10. Mike has asked me to talk about my book, share some of my favorite Prine songs, and be the butt of his many jokes.

Looking ahead to spring, the good folks at Greensboro’s Doodad Farm, Laurel and Dean Driver, have kindly agreed to host A Tribute to John Prine to benefit Voices Together at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 17. The show will feature some of North Carolina’s finest singers and songwriters, including John Howie Jr., Molly McGinn, Caleb Caudle, Chip Robinson, and many others. There won’t be much room for me to get a word in edgewise with nearly two dozen performers singing nearly three dozen Prine songs, but I will speak briefly about my book and introduce a song or two by reading passages about them.

The singers will perform songs spanning Prine’s storied career, from “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery” to “Unwed Fathers” and “In Spite of Ourselves.” As usual for Doodad Farm events there will be no ticket sales, but guests who have the means are asked to make a donation of $10 to $15 or more. All proceeds will go to Voices Together, a Durham-based non-profit that uses music to help people with developmental disabilities increase communication and social / emotional skills.

“Bring a chair, a cooler, your kids, and friendly dogs out to the farm,” Dean Driver says. “Goats will be provided.”

Legal Smile

marijuana leavesAlaska just became the third state to legalize marijuana. John Prine has steadfastly maintained that “Illegal Smile,” one of the enduring classics from his 1971 debut album, was not about smoking pot, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary. “Fortunately,” he sang, “I have the key to escape reality.”

He wrote the song at home in the Chicago suburbs the year of Woodstock and Altamont, as documented on his 1988 album John Prine Live: “It was 1969, and nothing seemed to make much sense to me. I liked to laugh and when I can’t laugh I like to smile. Some people think you should have a reason to smile or they think you’re up to something, so it must be an illegal smile.”

Not everyone believes his innocent explanation for the song’s origins. When he played the song early on for an underground TV show in Chicago, the cameraman kept zooming in on a fake marijuana plant. (The tune would make it to national television a few years later as the improbable theme song for a short-lived sitcom.)

Fast forward a few decades. An aspiring singer-songwriter named Kacey Musgraves – born the year John Prine Live came out – approached Prine before his annual Christmas concert, according to a recent Rolling Stone Country article: “This little girl comes up to me with her buddy…. They wanted to take me out in the parking lot and get me high. I said, ‘Uh, gee, thanks but… no, thanks.'”

Since then, Musgraves has become a fast-rising Nashville star. Her major-label debut, Same Trailer Different Park, has earned her multiple awards, including a Grammy for Best Country Album. Unfortunately, the album didn’t include “Burn One with John Prine,” in which Musgaves sings, “my idea of heaven / Is to burn one with John Prine.”

Recently Musgraves got to do the next best thing, according to the RS Country article: perform with Prine on the annual Cayamo cruise. Here’s a fan’s video of her telling the story and singing “Burn One” as Prine looks on. “Maybe he would sit awhile,” she sings, “and render me an illegal smile.”

Honky tonk pipedream

American Aquarium Wolves album cover for blog 02-20-2015Wolves, the new album by North Carolina-based American Aquarium, debuted at No. 24 on the Americana Music Charts this week, and it’s getting great reviews. I interviewed front man B.J. Barham for Relish in November. The band played a nice Prine cover at a recent show in Greensboro, giving a serious honky tonk flair to “Spanish Pipedream.” (Dig that pedal steel!)

Sold American!

We got the Louisiana boogie and the delta blues
We got country, swing and rockabilly, too
We got jazz, country-Western and Chicago blues
It’s the greatest music that you ever knew
It’s American music, it’s American music, it’s American music
It’s the greatest sound right from the USA

– the Blasters, “American Music”

John Prine: In Spite of Himself will be the fifth book in University of Texas Press’s American Music Series, following portraitsMenconi David Losering book cover 02-17-2015 of the Flatlanders, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, and Ryan Adams / Whiskeytown. One of my editors, David Menconi, wrote the Adams book. The pace of the series will pick up over the next couple of years, as David details in a recent post on his blog.

The series will also expand beyond the country / folk / Americana realm in 2016 with books about Madonna and Mary J. Blige. I’m especially interested in Kristin Hersh’s forthcoming book about Vic Chesnutt. He was a brilliant eccentric who clawed his way back from partial paralysis after a teenaged drunk-driving accident. Chesnutt released a series of thorny, beautiful albums that showcased his yowling Southern drawl, inspired guitar playing, and unique sensibility.

I had the great pleasure of spending a cold 1993 day in Athens, Georgia, with Chesnutt and his wife, Tina, interviewing them for Option magazine. Chesnutt wrestled with many personal demons, failing in several suicide attempts. Lacking health insurance and overwhelmed by medical bills, he finally succeeded, dying on Christmas day 2009. Keep an eye out for Kristin’s book, and take half an hour sometime to enjoy Pete Sillen’s unflinching, deeply moving 1994 documentary, “Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt.”