Al Bunetta, the trail-blazing manager for John Prine for more than 40 years, and a beloved and well-respected music industry figure besides, died March 22 at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville from cancer, after having been admitted to the hospital for stomach pain only 10 days earlier. He was 72.
Bunetta, a street-smart former truck driver, met Prine when Bunetta was managing the late singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. He deftly managed Prine’s career for more than 40 years, “most of it on a handshake,” Bunetta told Billboard in a 2012 interview, adding, “but now we’re at a certain age where we have to put stuff on paper.”
Frustrated with their experiences within the major label system, Bunetta and Prine founded Oh Boy! Records in 1984, releasing scores of albums and videos by such artists as Kris Kristofferson, Todd Snider and Prine, including new studio recordings, live albums, and re-issues of Prine’s classic recordings on Asylum. Prine captured a Grammy for his 1991 release, The Missing Years. Bunetta also founded the Red Pajamas imprint for Goodman’s own music.
A blue-collar manager from the old school, Bunetta was a visionary and a risk-taker, steering Prine’s touring, publishing, and recording careers with skill and integrity. Possessing and iron will and boundless energy, Bunetta was tireless in promoting the career of Prine, an artist who’s popularity and demand has never waned. “You can’t just do things for monetary gain — we won’t,” Bunetta told Billboard, adding that he took great care in putting the popular artist in the right rooms and markets. “Ironically, that’s why we get top money. John has his standards, man, and it’s all about doing what’s right.”
Promoter Danny Zelisko, a close friend of Bunetta’s, calls the manager “an innovator,” particularly in his strategic booking strategies that made Prine one of the biggest folk musicians in the world, and launching Prine’s Oh Boy! and Goodman’s Red Pajamas imprints. “He did it before it was popular to do it, and it works to this day,” Zelisko tells Billboard. “He took his bookings in-house… John Prine thrived and still does to this day.”
“He liked making money, he loved his farm, his cars, his friends, good food, and most of all his life mate, Dawn,” says Zelisko. “He will be missed. Not just by us who knew and loved him but the scores of people who never had the pleasure. It’s very difficult to summarize such a guy, much less believe he has gone. He would be humble about it, but he deserves all the nice things people will say about him.”
He is survived by his wife Dawn.
A public memorial service to honor Bunetta will take place at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, March 31 at the CMA Theater in downtown Nashville. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Juri Bunetta Friendship Foundation.