Tag Archives: John Prine

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.”

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.”

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.”

The race is on

Hi, folks. In slibookcoverghtly more than a month University of Texas Press will publish my first book, John Prine: In Spite of Himself, part of its American Music Series. I’m starting this blog as a companion piece to the book. Watch this space for news of upcoming events related to the book, behind-the-scenes stories and photos about researching and writing it, and more.

The big news so far: Publishers Weekly put my book on its list of Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2015, alongside upcoming releases from the likes of Toni Morrison, Nick Hornby, Thomas McGuane, Kim Gordon, and Erik Larson. I was surprised and honored to find myself in such esteemed company.

PW gave the book a positive review: “Huffman’s book will make us want to pick up Prine’s albums and listen to them once again or for the first time.” Kirkus also gave it a good review, saying “Huffman proves an amiable companion as he leads readers though the musical development of an artist whose songwriting uniqueness has prevailed over a decided lack of ambition and decades of commercial indifference.”

Thanks for checking in! See you soon.