Fiona Whelan Prine: ‘What U2 discovered in America, John Prine discovered in Ireland’

JOHN Prine was the songwriter for the songwriter, and it’s hard to think of anyone who won so much praise from fellow musicians and contemporaries alike.

Bob Dylan once suggested that he wrote “the most beautiful songs” while Bruce Springsteen added that it was “music of immense compassion with an almost unparalleled precision and creativity when it came to ‘to observe the smallest details of ordinary life’.

Fiona Whelan Prine, speaking from Tennessee, reflects: ‘It was like the whole world stopped to breathe’, in reference to the many tributes paid to her husband when he died two years ago, including a sincere appreciation from President Michael D. Higgins.

He described Prine as a “beloved presence” in Ireland following the singer’s death in April 2020 due to complications from Covid-19 at the age of 73.

It was in 1981 that Prine became a co-founder of Oh Boy Records as a vehicle for his music and the work of others; it also resisted lucrative offers while continuing to provide an honest presentation of independent folk and country music.

Run today by Prine’s family, the label – one of America’s oldest independents – has just embarked on a European tour with a closing party in Dublin at the Workman’s Club next week.

Fiona will make one of the select few appearances in Ireland alongside Oh Boy artists including Arlo McKinley, Emily Scott Robinson and Kelsey Waldon, each of them carrying something of the popular Prine spirit.

“They are all wonderful young writers, I think they all have the same dedication and craftsmanship as John, each of them highlights the work we do at Oh Boy Records,” Fiona enthuses, explaining which prompted her late husband to sign each songwriter. .

Robinson’s style echoes Prine’s concern for lost souls on the wrong side of the American Dream. “All good writers build on what they know,” says Fiona.

“John rarely put himself in his songs although he had first-hand experiences of the subjects he was writing about. Emily is a very mature young woman and has a gifted outlook on life.

“My first thought when I heard her was Nanci Griffith, and I hadn’t realized that Nanci was one of her all-time favorites. Life in America is very different from anywhere else today. oday we wake up to some very heartbreaking stuff with gun violence again.

“Emily, like Nanci, writes about characters from the Great Plains of America, she wraps them in that American experience.”

There is a strong spiritual and poignant element to Robinson’s work. In contrast, Kelsey Waldon delivers a raw slice of outlaw Americana, invoking Gold-era Ryan Adams.

“John loved Kelsey – they had obvious ties to a Kentucky upbringing and those influences, but he just loved singing with her, there’s something special about her voice and she continues to grow as a songwriter” , explains Fiona.

“In every track, there’s a real vulnerability and maturity that’s a fantastic mix.”

Oh Boy has also released the work of Kris Kristofferson, the songwriter credited with helping Prine land his first recording contract. Kristofferson wasn’t alone with his endorsement – Johnny Cash once said he went to the “big four” songwriters for inspiration, one of them being Prine.

It is fair to say that Prine had an extraordinary influence on his contemporaries. His singular ability to write about ordinary working-class experience with pathos, humor and appreciation won him a legion of admirers.

“John marveled at his own success,” says Fiona. “At home he was just an ordinary guy – success and stardom didn’t come easy for John, so when he got feedback from industry peers and alumni he was thrilled, he had a big smile on his face.”

While in Ireland, one of Prine’s favorite hangouts was Green’s Bar in Kinvara, Galway. Summers are said to have been spent in Ireland playing with other musicians, including Paul Brady, Declan O’Rourke and Sharon Shannon.

“He saw himself as part of that grassroots community, especially when the kids were younger,” Fiona says.

“He loved the simplicity of life among the artists, musicians, writers and poets of the small communities who would meet in the pub and sing songs. There’s so much about it he enjoyed, you don’t understand so much anymore that in America.

“Ireland is a unique place, there is nowhere else like it. I would take him back to the village where I come from in Donegal, it reminded him of his early days in Kentucky.”

The pair first met when Prine was on tour in Dublin in 1988, at a time when the songwriter was going through a period of transition both musically and personally.

His next studio album The Missing Years (1991) would mark a strong comeback with an array of special guests including Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.

“John himself had a few years missing after a difficult second marriage, he wasn’t sure which direction he wanted to go musically…only John could write the way he did. He had a resurgence and we created this family and had children.”

The Country Music Hall of Fame has a rare image of Prine with Bono at Sun Studios in 1988 when U2 were recording Rattle and Hum. While U2 drew inspiration from the heartland of the United States, Prine decided to do the same in Ireland.

“I remember we went to the U2 show at The Point at that time (during the Lovetown tour). What they found in America, John found in Ireland,” says Fiona.

“I was working in Dublin in the 80s in a recording studio and over the next two years we found a way to be together. As crazy and unlikely as it sounds, we managed to create a beautiful life together , our family and life in Ireland was something he treasured.I still have the family home there in Kinvara.

The Oh Boy Records tour takes place in cities where Prine maintained a particularly strong affinity with his audience. “He also loved Glasgow and made those connections, he loved the people when he was walking around the city, before or after a show he came across,” says Fiona.

“He got this heart-to-heart feeling from them. John was just a regular guy, the artists on the label are the same real people – it’s real life in real time and they don’t shy away from their art .”

Oh Boy cultivates the purity of his acts, including Arlo McKinley who will also perform in Dublin. His austere and beautiful songs about strangers and misfits who have run out of money and luck will stop listeners in their tracks.

“When you look at John’s songwriting and the issues he speaks about, you hear the same themes being discussed with these writers decades later in the heartland of the United States,” says Fiona.

“Whether it’s broken marriages or drug addiction, none of these writers shy away. We carry on tradition and speak truth to power – there’s no girl in shorts sitting in the back of a truck in any of these songs.”

:: The Oh Boy Records Tour with Arlo McKinley, Emily Scott Robinson and Kelsey Waldon reaches The Workman’s Club Cellar, Dublin on June 22.

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