The decorated American singer-songwriter, John Prine, died last month at the age of 73. In this guest post, the television producer, writer and presenter, David Heffernan – who worked closely with John – remembers the magic of the man and his music.
The English translation of the Spanish word Eldorado is ‘gilded one’. The Cadillac car company bestowed the name on one of its most sought after models, which also featured a soft-top version. This edition became hugely desirable, most notably from the 1950’s to the ’70, among entertainers and singers, not just in Los Angeles but in the southern states, especially and perhaps not surprisingly, Nashville.
In Tennessee’s climate, summertime temperatures generally hit the low 30s but can reach highs of 42 degrees. Factor in the humidity and it’s a pretty stifling environment, day and night, for anyone not accustomed to it. So it was with much relief that John Prine and I took to Broadway, Nashville’s main street, on a balmy July evening in the mid 1990s, in his white vintage Cadillac Eldorado convertible, its glistening chrome bumpers reflecting the heady mix of the street’s distinctive amber glow with the promise of an encroaching dusk. We were gliding along in fine old style.
Our destination was a seafood restaurant, L&N, for a meeting with a programme executive from TNN, a local music television station that pumped out a selection of country music-based programming to many parts of America. Over dinner we were set to discuss a new music series that Frontier Films wished to produce. We had worked previously with John on The Session, which Frontier had produced with RTÉ and which went on to win an ACE Award, the Cable television equivalent of an Emmy, and he was keen to get involved in a new project, Town and County, which Channel 4 would eventually fund. In the unending quest of ‘raising finance’ the TNN meet was a long shot but I was well up to the caper. Nashville at night, John Prine and his white Eldorado convertible, you bet.
Unsurprisingly, the TNN exec., while clearly enthralled by John’s storytelling, wasn’t in a position to part with any money for our project. Undeterred – and well-fed and watered – we said our goodbyes and headed into the night. The Bluebird, a noted haunt of song-writers, is situated in a suburb called Greenhills, not far from John’s house, and was our point of call. And so the talk turned to songs and song-writing, the lingua franca of everyday life in Music City, U.S.A.
I was first off the bat. Mervin Henderson was a journeyman singer who, mid-way through the last century, performed with The Blind Boys of Alabama. His daughter, the angel-voiced Dorothy Moore, recorded a song in 1973 that had previously been a hit for a number of performers, including mainstream country act, Eddie Arnold. That song, ‘Misty Blue’, is now considered a country and blues standard. I’d long been fascinated by this recording – realised in one take for Malaco Records in Jacksonville, Mississippi – and wondered what John’s recollection of the song might be ?.
‘Well David’, he recalled, ‘I first heard it while on the road. It came on the radio and I asked Gary Fish, who was driving and acting as my road manager, to head to the nearest town and find a record store. When we got there, I asked the owner would he mind playing the song three times onto a cassette: that way I could hear it while driving and wouldn’t have to keep re-winding’. So we were off and running.
The conversation soon turned to John’s own songs. Having worked with him over previous years, I’d heard most of them many times during rehearsals for television. I’d grown to love more than a few of them: the rueful acceptance of a relationship gone sadly awry in ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’, the tender, compassionate request for dignity in ‘Hello in There’ and the whimsical meanderings of ‘Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian’.
Yet there was a haunting quality to one of the songs he’d recorded earlier in his career and which he’d performed during the second series of The Session – an event that marked the opening night of The Point Theatre – that has long fascinated me and remains a personal highlight from the series.
The Point was once a nineteenth century train depot which, after substantial renovation, subsequently hosted three Eurovision Song contests: the interval dance act performed during the 1994 event was Riverdance. But prior to all that, it was The Session, featuring John Prine that played the first notes of music in Ireland’s première venue.
John was accompanied on the night in question by a stellar band, comprising Irish, US and British musicians. These included former David Bowie drummer, Tony Newman, the legendary Don Everly, the remarkable and gifted ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, producer, songwriter and close ally Jim Rooney, a youthful Marty Stuart and special guest Lyle Lovett, together with John’s long time music side-kick and close friend, Philip Donnelly. In The Point’s cavernous setting, ‘Saddle in the Rain’ reflected, in stark terms, a dark subject matter that reverberated amongst the audience and was at odds with the rest of John’s song selections on the night.
‘Saddle in the Rain’ was first recorded in 1975 for the ‘Common Sense’ album, produced by legendary Stax guitar player, and subsequent Blues Brother, Steve Cropper. It’s a ‘big’ up-tempo production featuring a full brass section, all-girl backing vocalists and more than a passing nod to the Disco boom of the time: not exactly standard John Prine territory. As we drove towards The Bluebird, it seemed like a good opportunity to ask about this enigmatic and, as performed in The Point, most unsettling of songs.
It’s worth pointing out that, when not on the road, John enjoyed the company of others and was a warm host who loved to cook BBQ, sing songs and generally ‘hang out’. While deeply private in many respects, he was also naturally convivial and, invariably, in his own understated way, extremely generous to his guests. On our journey to The Bluebird, John told me that on one occasion, a male acquaintance came around to where he was living at the time: it subsequently transpired he’d come to be on the wrong side of the law. Rather than hand himself in, he took his own life by gunshot. John found his body and ‘Saddle in the Rain’ was clearly informed by this traumatic event.
The pared back version he performed in The Point echoed the exhortation of shock and deep disappointment he must have felt at the time of writing – yet without bitterness or recrimination – as the empathy and compassion contained within the performance amply demonstrates. Its dark subject matter is similar to ‘Lake Marie’, from 1995’s ‘Lost Day’s and Mixed Blessings’ album, also recorded in Los Angeles under the aegis of Heartbreakers’ bass player. Howie Epstein. The starting point for which was the reporting of a series of gruesome murders committed in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago: it is, by all accounts, Bob Dylan’s favourite John Prine song.
Within the constraints of popular music – teenage love affairs and subsequent heartbreak being the foremost narrative tropes – John Prine is one of a handful of writers whose song-writing reflects a broader, more complex range of human emotions and life experiences that many of us will encounter, in one way or another, over our lifetimes. Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan are other figures from that generation who have stretched those constraints and hence transformed the possibilities of what popular music can do. And John Prine deserves to be considered a member of this august company.
As we drove around Nashville in his Eldorado all those years ago, I suspect John never considered he’d be included in such a gilded group of twentieth century artists. Yet, in 2005, he became the first singer-songwriter to read and perform at the US Library of Congress. No mean feat for a former postman from Chicago who found that writing, as he put it, ‘his little ditties’, to pass the time on his postal round, would produce a body of work that will, I suspect, not just stand the test of time but, through the situations that made his songs happen, enable us to feel a tad more human, a little better about ourselves and the world we live in.
So thank you for the memories, John. And the Eldorado evening.