The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith will this week host a night in memory of singer-songwriter John Prine. David Hennessy spoke to Ralph McTell and John’s son Tommy Prine, who will be among the performers paying tribute.
This Thursday (7 April) is the second anniversary of the death of American country singer-songwriter John Prine.
It is on that night that The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith is celebrating the man and his music.
Blow Up Your TV! Remembering John Prine will feature performances by Ralph McTell and John’s own son, Tommy Prine.
John’s widow Fiona is from Ardara, Co. Donegal. Fiona, John and their family spent much time in Kinvara, Co. Galway where they had a home.
Of the vast amount of tributes paid to John when his death was announced in 2020, many came from Ireland, which took to him just as much as he did to it.
The concert’s bill also features Tanya McCole from Ardara in Donegal, who toured as a special guest for many John Prine concerts, John’s longtime friend Paul Mulligan – a singer-songwriter from Kinvara, Co. Galway and former Altan fiddle and accordion players, Ciaran Tourish and Dermot Byrne.
Ralph McTell told The Irish World: “I can’t say we were intimate or close friends.
“I would have loved to have known John better.
“Sometimes you feel you know someone through their music, and that tends to be backed up by what other people say. That’s my feeling with John.
“John is the definitive old country protest singer really firmly in the footsteps of one of my great heroes, Woody Guthrie.
“I don’t think ‘three chords and the truth’ applies to anyone better than John.
“John’s uncompromising lyrics and his simple tunes are deceptive, the way they get into you.
“I remember when I got my first Woody Guthrie song book about 100 years ago, Pete Seeger had written the introduction and he said, ‘Any damn fool can get complicated, but it takes a genius to keep it simple’.
“John fits that description perfectly because the simplicity is deceptive, is really very deep quite often.
“It’s a voice of honesty.
“It is pure American, pure honesty – it’s strength, it’s gritty.
“He was a very, very special writer and we will wait a long time if ever someone comes along as strong and as honest and as direct and good and melodic as John.
“That will be a long time.
“John has got that pure kind of – you can almost feel the coal dust under the fingernails, you know what I mean?
“Obviously there’s so much humanity in his songs and they are very approachable and very singable and all that.”
His songs are known for their humour, protest and social commentary. Prine was active from the 1970s right up to his death.
“I first noticed him with a song called Sam Stone about the veterans coming home from the war in Vietnam, and the kind of problems that they had adjusting to civilian life and so on.
“It was a beautiful, but very sad, song.
“Sporadically through my musical career, I would pick up the odd John Prine song.
“I was on my own song-writing track, which is different, but my roots are the same.
“Some years ago, I was given a BBC award for folk music and then the following year, or a year after I think, John was nominated, and he asked who else had one. They said me, and he said, ‘Well, that’ll do me’. That was his acceptance speech, which was one of the best compliments I’ve ever had.
“I sat with him when he received his award but of course, by that time he didn’t chat a lot because of the hideous throat cancer thing that he had bless him, but we chatted away.
“I think it was his tour manager that remarked that we hit it off really well together.
“I’m very honoured to be asked to play. I’m surprised, and this is no offence to the Irish Cultural Centre which I go to on a regular basis to listen to traditional Irish music and so on, but I’m surprised at the size of the venue. I thought he ought to have had the Albert Hall – that’s how big he is.
“But this will have an intimacy and a friendliness. It’s a very special occasion and I’m delighted to be able to accept.
“I’m learning one of his songs for the show and they’ve asked me to play a couple of mine.”
Ralph, an Irish World Award winner, is known for his classics Streets of London and From Clare To Here.
“John lived in Nashville for a long time, and I know that’s where Nanci Griffith first heard the song From Clare to Here so I know that John will have known that song.
“Nanci recorded John’s song Speed of the Sound of Loneliness and she also recorded From Clare to Here so that’s the way I shall link my songs on the night.”
Although not Irish, Ralph is proud of how From Clare to Here is so associated with the country.
“It’s quite well known that it was a phrase uttered by a young labourer I was working with.
“When he was missing home, he said, ‘It’s a long way from Clare to here’.
“I have always said that if he said, ‘It’s a long way from here to Clare’, I would have just nodded and that would have been it but because he put Clare first it suggested to me that’s where his heart was.
“I thought, ‘That’s a song waiting to be written’.
“People have been kind enough to say some very positive things about the song, so it seems to have worked its way into the Irish canon of songs. I’m so proud of that.
“It’s very touching and humbling.
“I’m desperately searching for an Irish relative. I haven’t found one yet, I think there must be something there because I feel very bonded to Ireland and the Irish people.”
“Irish culture embraces quite sentimental songs with hard reality songs because of the history and the pain of emigration, separation and so on.
“That suits me down to the ground because that’s the sort of music I like best as well when it comes to writing. John would certainly have found a home for the honesty of his work over there – Ireland would probably be a natural place for him to be at ease.
“You can’t get much further away from Nashville than Galway, really.”
“When you write your songs, you sort of let them go. If they find their way to others’ interpretation, that’s a bonus.
“As Woody Guthrie wisely said, ‘Anyone found singing my songs without my due consent and permission is a true friend of mine because that’s what I wrote them for’.
“John seemed to be quite shy and retiring but we chatted, and we clicked, and I was so thrilled to be in his company and sit next to him and talk for a while and loudly applaud when he went and made his little short speech and accepted the award. It was a great moment.”
Tommy Prine is following in his father’s footsteps as a singer-songwriter and will release his debut album later this year,
He told The Irish World that he will be honoured to play in honour of his father at the ICC this week and how much his father’s encouragement meant to him.
Tommy said: “I’m really excited. I can’t wait.
“I know he’s my father and everything, but it’s not like I assume that I’m always gonna be a part of it.
“So obviously, I was very honoured just to even be asked to do something like this.
“There’re so many talented artists out there that can do justice to my father’s songs.
“I was just very grateful and honoured that I got the opportunity to share this experience with everyone.
“It’s a blessing that my father meant so much to so many people around the world.
“There is a distinction, for me at least, between John Prine and then my dad.
“The world lost a great songwriter in John Prine, I lost my father.
“It really does mean a lot. You can see in people’s eyes whenever they come up and talk to me and share about how much my father meant to them.
“That is a really, really, really special thing that I get to experience.
“It was a little hard at first but it’s really, really special. I’m very blessed my father’s reached so many people through his music.
“It’s gonna be really special for sure. All the songs that I learn to play that are my father’s take on a whole new meaning once I get to play them and use my voice.
“It’s hard to explain but it’s really special.”
What can you tell us about John Prine the man himself?
“To a certain degree who you thought he was, was who he was – he was simple. He was happy. He was interesting, he was funny.
“He was exactly how you would imagine him to be if you ever met him.
“The way that he would describe the world around him and the way that he would talk or use words in his song, was exactly who he was as a person.
“He probably had an easier time deciphering the world around him through his music than he did just through conversation. That’s part of what made him such a special person as an artist as a special person in general.”
As father and son, you shared the stage with him many times over the years.
“To his credit and my mum’s credit, they never pushed me to do anything.
“When it comes to music and stuff, they were never like, ‘Oh, you should do this’ or ‘You should do that’.
“I just gravitated naturally towards the guitar and started picking and playing and writing.
“I’d show my dad stuff that I’d come up with and it was the ultimate proud moment whenever I’d show him a song and he told me it was a good one, because he was always honest.
“He’d be like, ‘Oh, keep working on that one, I don’t think that one’s quite there yet’.
“Sometimes, very, very seldom, he would be like, ‘That’s a really good song, Tommy’.
“No one could tell me anything after he told me that, I was on top of the world for sure.
“I cherish the moments that I had on stage with him. I know he did too.”
“You know, my dad always had a deep appreciation for culture and for people and what those two things would come up with.
“He could never put his finger on what really drew him to Ireland, but its people would probably be his number one answer.
“It always will hold a very special place in my heart.
“When I was a kid, we would spend two to three months at a time out of every year during the summer, just to go hang out in Kinvara, and lots of very important childhood memories were made there. They’re near and dear to my heart.
“I remember the many, many, many times that we would pull over on the side of the road so we could stop and get a ‘99’.
“That was always fun and always his idea. Always hold those memories very close.”
“Every chance that I get to have a tribute with my father is going to be very special.
“This is definitely going to be a very significant moment for me and my family.”
Blow Up Your TV! Remembering John Prine – 7.30pm this Thursday (7 April) at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.