Music

Fiona Whelan Prine: 'What U2 were finding in America, John Prine was discovering in Ireland'

John Prine, who died in 2020 after battling Covid-19, was regarded as a songwriter's songwriter, with the American musician having a deep connection with Ireland, its music and its people. As artists from Oh Boy, the record label he founded, prepare to play in Dublin, Fiona Whelan Prine talks to Richard Purden about her husband's legacy

Oh Boy records artists, including Kelsey Waldon, with the late John Prine, pictured centre, and Fiona Whelan Prine.

JOHN Prine was the songwriter's songwriter, and it's hard to think of anyone who has won as many plaudits from fellow musicians and contemporaries.

Bob Dylan once suggested he wrote "the most beautiful songs" while Bruce Springsteen added it was "music of towering compassion with an almost unheard of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives".

Fiona Whelan Prine, speaking down the line from Tennessee, reflects: "It was as if the whole world stopped to draw breath," in reference to the many tributes paid to her husband on his death two years ago, including a heartfelt appraisal from President Michael D. Higgins.

He described Prine as a "beloved presence" in Ireland after the singer died in April 2020 due to complications from Covid-19 at the age of 73.

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

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

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

"They are all wonderful young writers, I think they all have the same dedication and craft that John had, each of them underlines the work we do at Oh Boy Records," enthuses Fiona as she explains what drew her late husband to sign each songwriter.

Robinson's style echoes Prine's concern with lost souls on the wrong side of the American dream. "All good writers draw on what they know," explains Fiona.

"John rarely put himself in his songs although he did have direct experiences of the subjects he was writing about. Emily is a very mature young woman and has a gifted way of looking at life.

"My first thought when I heard her was Nanci Griffith, and I didn't realise Nanci was one of her all-time favourites. Life in America is very different from anywhere else, today we are waking up to very harrowing stuff with gun violence again.

"Emily, like Nanci, writes about characters on the great plains of America, she wraps them around that American experience."

There is a strong spiritual element and poignancy to Robinson's work. In contrast, Kelsey Waldon offers a raw slice of outlaw Americana, summoning Gold-era Ryan Adams.

"John loved Kelsey - they had obvious connections with a Kentucky upbringing and those influences but he loved just singing with her, there's something special in her voice and she continues to grow as a songwriter," says Fiona.

"In every track, there is a real vulnerability and maturity which is a fantastic mix."

Oh Boy also released work by Kris Kristofferson, the songwriter credited with helping Prine get his first record deal. 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's fair to say Prine had an extraordinary sway among his contemporaries. His singular ability to write about the ordinary working class experience with pathos, humour and appreciation won him a legion of admirers.

"John marvelled at his own success," says Fiona. "At home he was just a regular guy - success and celebrity didn't come easy to John so when he would get comments from peers and elders in the industry he was thrilled, he would have a big grin across his face."

While in Ireland, a favourite haunt of Prine's was Green's Bar in Kinvara, Galway. Summers would be spent in Ireland playing with fellow musicians, among them Paul Brady, Declan O'Rourke and Sharon Shannon.

"He saw himself as part of that community at grassroots level, especially when the children were younger", explains Fiona.

"He loved the simplicity of life among the artists, musicians, writers and poets in the small communities gathering in the pub and singing songs. There is so much about it that he appreciated, you just don't get that so much any more in America.

"Ireland is a unique place; there's nowhere else like it. I'd take him back to the village I'm from in Donegal, it reminded him of his early life in Kentucky."

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

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

"John had some missing years himself after a difficult second marriage, he wasn't sure which way 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 owns a rare picture of Prine with Bono at Sun Studios in 1988 when U2 were recording Rattle and Hum. Just as U2 were absorbing the American heartlands for inspiration, Prine decided to do the same thing in Ireland.

"I remember we went to the U2 show at the Point around that time (on the Lovetown tour). What they were finding in America, John was discovering in Ireland," explains Fiona.

"I was working in Dublin back in the 80s at a recording studio and over the following couple of years we figured out a way to be together. As crazy and unlikely as it seemed, we managed to create a beautiful life together, our family and life in Ireland were something he treasured. I still have the family home there in Kinvara."

The Oh Boy Records tour takes in cities where Prine enjoyed a particularly strong affinity with his audience. "He also loved Glasgow and made those connections, he loved the people when wandering the city, before or after a show he'd run into them," says Fiona.

"He got that 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 nurtures the purity of its acts, among them Arlo McKinley who will also appear in Dublin. His stark, beautiful songs about outsiders and misfits who have run out of money and luck will stop listeners in their tracks.

"When you look at John's songwriting and issues he's talking about, you are hearing the same themes being addressed with these writers several decades later in the American heartland," says Fiona.

"Whether it's broken marriages or substance abuse, none of these writers shies away. We are carrying on the tradition and speaking truth to power - there's no girl in short shorts sitting in the back of a truck in any of these songs."

::The Oh Boy Records tour featuring Arlo McKinley, Emily Scott Robinson and Kelsey Waldon reaches The Workman's Club Cellar, Dublin on June 22. Ticketmaster.ie. Ohboy.com.

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