A souvenir of iconic songwriter John Prine’s 2010 turn on RFD-TV’s ‘The Marty Stuart Show’

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John Prine reclines alongside his Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar in a publicity shot surrounding the distribution of 2016’s female duet-driven “For Better, or Worse.” Photography by Josh Britt / Shore Fire Media

The late esteemed Illinoisan songwriter John Prine consistently released superb albums for 47 years, jump-started by his self-titled 1971 debut. Recorded at American Sound Studios in Memphis with Atlantic’s Arif Mardin at the helm and the legendary Memphis Boys session cats, songs on his most beloved album include “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” and “Paradise.” Artists from virtually all genres have covered these songs, whether John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam, the Everly Brothers, John Denver, David Allan Coe, or Carly Simon. In fact, two other iconic musicians, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, have both cited Prine as one of their favorite songwriters.

Prine performed between 50 and 60 shows per year. Stripping his music down to the bare essentials, only two musicians accompanied him — Jason Wilber on lead guitar and Dave Jacques keeping the backbeat on stand-up bass. For the uninitiated, witnessing Prine in concert for the first time was somewhat akin to what Elvis Presley and the Blue Moon Boys — lead guitarist Scotty Moore and doghouse bassist Bill Black — or Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two must have sounded like while they were on Sun Records.

Having successfully conquered squamous cell cancer of the neck in 1998, the troubadour’s face was etched with weathered lines representing his rough and tumble life. Thinning salt and pepper hair came to a stark peak on his forehead. And Prine’s trademark pencil-thin moustache fit in nicely with his penchant for wearing all black, setting him apart from the usual glitz and glamour of many entertainers.

He was not a great, classically trained singer in the conventional fashion; rather, Prine was a unique interpreter of the American songbook. His low, often gravelly voice had a certain knack for pulling the listener into whatever song he was tackling. Look no further for evidence of Prine’s lyrical genius than his January 2, 2010, spot on The Marty Stuart Show, a 30-minute variety show specializing in country music that aired Saturdays between 2008 and 2014 on the rural-leaning RFD-TV network.

A quintessential, cool portrait of John Prine wisely chosen as the cover of the artist’s third studio LP, “Sweet Revenge.” Unleashed in October 1973, the album spent 11 weeks on Billboard but nevertheless stalled at No. 135 POP. Photography by Wendi E. Lombardi / Atlantic Records

Prine’s pre-taped appearance in Nashville came during the third episode of The Marty Stuart Show’s second season. Stuart introduced the legend by saying, “We have a national treasure. Some of the greatest songs in the contemporary American songbook come from the heart, mind, and soul of this man…” Prine subsequently delivered “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” [German Afternoons, 1986]. An acoustic, now standard about a man contemplating his rambling soulmate, “Loneliness” includes the distinctive chorus, “So what in the world’s come over you, you’re out there runnin’ just to be on the run.”

After a short break that featured a performance from Stuart’s wife, the exquisite Connie Smith, Prine returned to share the stage with the host on a lament for fading memories, “Souvenirs,” taken from his second record, Diamonds in the Rough. Before the song commenced, Stuart admitted, “If my life depended on it, I couldn’t pick my favorite John Prine song. But the one that I keep comin’ back to is ‘Souvenirs’. Prine added, “My buddy, songwriter Steve Goodman, used to play this with me.” Both playing acoustic guitars, Stuart added vocals during each chorus. The crowd applauded the duo midway through the performance. Consider the effective first verse — “I hate graveyards and old pawn shops, for they always bring me tears; I can’t forgive the way they robbed me of my childhood souvenirs.”

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Singer-songwriter John Prine concentrates on a guitar lick during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, on September 30, 2011. Photography by Dave Golden

Adding a bit of musical accompaniment to the proceedings, Wilber and Jacques aided Prine on his final song. Stuart thanked the artist for his numerous musical contributions and then prefaced the performance by proclaiming “Paradise” to be a “national anthem of a lot of things.” Prine brought a surprising amount of feeling to his committed vocal. The narrator of “Paradise” wants to go back to his idyllic, boyhood home in rural Paradise, Kentucky, but his father tells him the negative impact of coal mining has stripped the land of its natural beauty — “I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking, Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it all away.”

Official late night comedy appearances documenting the songwriter’s supreme stage prowess in the twenty-tens occurred sporadically — i.e. The Late Show with David Letterman, The Colbert Report, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Jim James of indie rock-alt country linchpin My Morning Jacket sat in on Letterman for a duet on “All the Best” [The Missing Years, 1991], while simpatico Prine duet partner Iris DeMent offered a spirited rendition of “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out” on Meyers’ burgeoning satirical dissent of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Prine’s muse did not abandon him in the studio, although records of original material were not delivered as frequently as fans preferred. There was Fair & Square [2005], while Standard Songs for Average People [2007] surveyed country and gospel chestnuts with bluegrass guitarist Mac Wiseman, For Better, or Worse [2016] served as a vintage, duets-laden honky tonk affair with 11 chanteuses, and the No. 5 Billboard-ranked The Tree of Forgiveness [2018] bestowed Prine his highest ever charting release. Fittingly issued a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award just 10 weeks before his death, Prine showed no signs of retiring until succumbing to Coronavirus complications on April 7, 2020, at age 73. In social media updates shared by manager Fiona Whelan, her husband spent 12 grueling days on a ventilator in intensive care at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville. There was a flicker of hope that Prine would beat this chapter in a long line of health setbacks. Console yourself with the singing mailman’s entire catalog. It’s available on Amazon, iTunes, and all streaming services. Or share your memories of catching the masterful raconteur onstage below. John Prine is irreplaceable.

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“Hello in There” balladeer John Prine is pictured with band members Jason Wilber on lead guitar and Dave Jacques on stand-up bass in 2010. Photography by Jim Shea
Watch multiple Grammy-winning artist John Prine deliver “Souvenirs” with talented guitar slinger Marty Stuart on “The Marty Stuart Show,” broadcast on January 2, 2010, via RFDtv. Video Credit: Rural Media Group

© Jeremy Roberts, 2010, 2017. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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