Inside the Americana Music Association's Pre-Grammys Salute to John Prine

Rich Fury/Getty Images for the Recording Academy
John Prine attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at the Staples Center on Feb. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles.

The Americana Music Association corralled the biggest names in the genre to laud, praise and perform the music of John Prine at its annual Pre-Grammy Salute at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. "The word genius is used often and often times too lavishly,' said Dwight Yoakam from the stage during the nearly three-hour show Saturday night (Feb. 9). “It is never used enough when it comes to John Prine and his music.” 

Artists ranging from Yoakam to Margo Price, Bob Weir and Boz Scaggs all took on Prine’s catalog in a night that helped crystallize the impact Prine has had on generations of artists and comes on the heels of a late career surge for the singer-songwriter icon thanks to The Tree of Forgiveness, his first new album in 13 years that is up for two Grammy nominations this weekend for best Americana album and best American roots song for both "Knockin’ On Your Screen Door" and "Summer’s End." 

"Picture this," echoed Joe Henry, "John Prine has been a mountain before me. He’s a masterful songwriter who inspired my first young attempt to try it out. He’s a great artist and I love him."

Yokam and Henry weren’t alone in their praise during the night, with each performer noting just how Prine, the former Chicago mailman whose eponymous debut album was released in 1971 by Atlantic Records after being discovered by Kris Kristofferson, inspired their own careers and artistry. 

The Civil Wars member John Paul White, who took the reigns of Prine’s classic "Sam Stone," likened Prine’s mastery of words to the language of a Yoda-like figure and recalled a story where he recruited Prine to appear on one his albums. "I asked him, ‘Can you play guitar on my record?’ He said, ‘No one’s ever asked me to play guitar.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re a hero of mine guitar-wise’ and he thought that was funny as hell."

Ironically, some of the evening’s performers are competing with Prine at the Grammys, including the Wood Brothers, whose record One Drop of Truth is nominated along with Prine in the best Americana album category. The distinction led member Oliver Wood to joke, "We’re up against John for best Americana album and we’re so honored to lose to him this year." Anderson East had similar sentiments: "When I told John I was going to ruin one of his songs he said, ‘You can’t do much worse than I do.’"

The evening provided an ultimate look of Prine’s deeply eclectic songbook, which ranges from the heartfelt and thoughtful, to the light and novelty. The singer Maria Muldaur noted that she asked her ‘soul sister’ Bonnie Raitt what she should perform at the tribute. "Bonnie thought about it and said, ‘I have the perfect song for you," Muldaur said. “John has written so many deeply touching songs and this isn’t one of them." With that, she launched into Prine’s fluffy 1986-era track "Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian." Don Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops went a similar route, crooning a bright rendition of "Please Don’t Bury Me," which outlines Prine’s wishes upon his death. (Example lyric: "Give my stomach to Milwaukee if they run out of beer/ Put my socks in a cedar box, just to get 'em out of here.")

Meanwhile, the most heartrending portions of Prine’s catalog were also on full display, with Iron and Wine delivering a haunting version of "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)," a cut from Prine’s 1978 album Bruised Orange. Similarly Mary Gauthier, who said she’d have no idea what she was doing without Prine’s influence, performed "Speed the Sound of Loneliness.' It’s a track Prine recorded twice: first as a solo cut in 1986 and then again as a duet with Nanci Griffith in 1993. Bettye Lavette, also up against Prine for a Grammy for best Americana album, sang "Souvenirs" and cultivated one of the biggest reactions of the night, earning a standing ovation.

But perhaps it was Ken Paulson, the dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University, who summed up Prine the best during his introductory remarks as the evening began. "What we love about John Prine is that he lives the life we want our students to live," Paulson explained. "We want them to be artists of integrity, we want them to be good human beings and we want them to take pride in their music and say something worth saying. That’s all John Prine."

As the salute at the Troubadour was wrapping up and the entirety of the evening's performers took the stage for a rousing all-star sing-along of Prine’s "Paradise," Prine himself took the mic and his thoughts about the evening were brief: "This is the best party I’ve ever had."

Aside from the salute, this weekend also brought the news that Sony Pictures Classics is planning a threatical release of a documentary about Prine dubbed John Prine: Hello in There, set to focus on Prine’s life and featuring Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell.

2019 Grammy Awards