Americanafest 2018 experienced some of what that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, once referred to as “déjà vu all over again.” Just like last year, Jason Isbell won the Best Song and Album awards, and the artist everyone wanted to see perform was John Prine.
Last year, Prine and an all-star band including his friend Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires, presented his 1971 debut eponymous album in its entirety at the Station Inn. It was one of those “you wish you had the credentials or the time to wait a few hours on line” events. An honoring evening to the Nashvililian who has deservedly become Americana’s favorite son, this show was a prelude to Prine’s later crowning as 2017 Americana Artist of the Year.
This year, the stage was set for history to repeat. The week’s first showcase was a set by the curiously-labelled “John Prine & Friends” at the City Winery, and Prine was also again nominated for Artist of the Year. With so many musicians in town who are lucky to call this legend a friend, the field was wide open. There were no Twitter blasts telling us what to expect, however, most money was on Isbell and Shires who would both be coming home off the road for the Awards show the following night.
Common sense once again put this show at the top of the list of the week’s must and hardest to see sets. However, thanks to the Winery, a meager $25 entry fee guaranteed entry to a limited number of its Vinofile members. It was money well spent knowing that I’d get it.
Gracing Prine with an early 7pm “friendly-to-working-locals” show time, the doors were set to open at 5pm. Arriving at the Winery at 4:30pm, the combined Vinofile/Americana VIP line was at least 50 strong while the line for simple Festival wristband holders was already way beyond room capacity.
Inside, the first-class listening room was its usual self except for a crowd-increasing standing room section where some rear tables had been removed. On the waiting stage were five chairs that provoked a pondering of who tonight’s “friends” would be. We would remain clueless until they all walked on stage promptly at the scheduled 7pm start time.
Prine wasted no time in introducing the recognizable faces and setting the scene’s common theme for the evening. The four “buddies” were John’s co-writers on his latest album, The Tree of Forgiveness, which is not eligible for an Americana Award until next year. This collective would play the album in its entirely (well, almost) and would close with a few other selections—quite a clever and timely contrast to last year’s Station Inn debut album show.
The process began, and the night went down as one of the most warm and sincere evenings of musical intimacy you could ever ask for. A relaxed Prine welcomed us into his life, sharing stories behind every song and honoring each man joining him there on stage. He even let his co-writes sing a verse or two on their own, both showing his appreciation and giving us a sense of how it works to write a song together. He even graciously gave his voice a brief rest and let Auerbach sing “Caravan of Fools.”
Prine spoke in a rather deep voice that oddly sounded better when he sang than when he talked. The five-strong wall of guitars backed by a stand-up bass made for a fine musical palette to these well-crafted songs. The hired-guns for the evening though were the youngster in the bunch, Auerbach, who turned out to be the source of most of the night’s tasty guitar licks and Pat McLaughlin who showed us his prowess on the mandolin.
I wish I had the means and space to repeat everything John said. His way of owning a room with his friendly and funny personality could have easily found him an alternate career as a talk-show host. One thing however that he didn’t embellish much on was why they skipped the record’s penultimate song. “God Only Knows.” Written in 1978 with legendary record producer and bonafide nutcase Phil Spector, all John had to say was “For reasons beyond our control, Phil Spector couldn’t be here tonight.” before they passed over the song. Phil of course is currently in prison.
Rather than playing his most popular songs, for four of the five “bonus” songs after covering the new record, Prine stuck to the theme of songs he’d written with these guys. He also again turned over the stage to Auerbach for “Waiting on a Song” which John and he wrote as the title track for Dan’s recent solo record, with John contributing a stanza.
The gang stuck consciously and firmly to the listed show time and ended right at 8:15pm on the dot. There was no time for an encore despite an applause from the crowd worthy of such a legend. This night will surely go down as one of Americafest’s finest moments. Chalk that up to Prine’s humility in reminding us all how the co-write is an important part of the Music City songwriting community.
The next night at the Awards Show, as I expected, Prine repeated as Artist of the Year, denying Jason Isbell his third trifecta of record/album/artist. While I won’t argue with these results, it could be said that Isbell was more deserving in that Prine’s great new record is a next-year nominee. However, on the other hand, I am so thankful that John Prine is still here with us as a vital contributing and inspirational artist, and I’m all for giving him all the love that we can. No complaint registered.
- Knockin’ on Your Screen Door (McLaughlin, Prine)
- I Have Met My Love Today (Cook, Prine)
- Egg & Daughter Night, Lincoln Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone) (McLaughlin, Prine)
- Summer’s End (McLaughlin, Prine)
- Caravan of Fools (Auerbach, McLaughlin, Prine)
- Lonesome Friends of Science (Prine)
- No Ordinary Blue (Prine, Sykes)
- Boundless Love (Auerbach, McLaughlin, Prine)
- When I Get to Heaven (Prine)
- Waiting on a Song (Auerbach, Prine, McLaughlin, Swift)
- You Got Gold (Prine, Sykes)
- Daddy’s Little Pumpkin (Prine, McLaughlin)
- Only Love (Cook, Prine, Mason)
- Paradise (Prine)
John Prine—lead vocals and acoustic guitar
Roger Cook—acoustic guitar and backing vocals
Pat McLaughlin— mandolin, acoustic guitar and backing vocals
Dan Auerbach— acoustic guitar and backing vocals (lead vocals on #5 & #10)
Keith Sykes— acoustic guitar and backing vocals
Dave “Fergie” Ferguson—stand-up bass
Jason and Dave “rode the bench?”