The legendary singer songwriter John Prine and the Clonmel connection

Gerry Lawless

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Gerry Lawless

Legendary musician will be sadly missed in Clonmel

The late Philip Donnelly who made Clonmel his home for a long number of years had an enduring friendship with John Prine.
Months after Philip, who was a well known character in Clonmel and had a very loyal following for his performances in Clonmel,Fethard, Dundrum andother Tipperary venues,passed away in December his great friend the legendary singer songwriter John Prine passed away succcumbing to the coronavirus earlier this month.
Philip Donnelly, the “Clontarf Cowboy” who died on 28th November 2019 first went to America in 1974 to work with Donovan for a sprawling American tour in 1974.
He began working with John Prine in Cowboy Jack Clement’s recording studio in Nashville in the early 1980s and they became firm friends. “My first impression was that he played great guitar and he talked a lot,” Prine recalled. “When we were on the road, we were a party waiting to happen”
John Prine told a great story about the time he and Philip were in an airport after a show in the early days. They were down to their last few dollars when Philip bought The Wall St Journal with the money, as John was waiting in a queue for a hamburger. John said to Philip “why did you buy a newspaper with our last few dollars when we need to eat” John got a tap on the shoulder from the person behind him in the queue who gave him 5 dollars and said “don’t lose your faith in humanity” Philip and John used that line on many occasions in their friendship.
Philip said in an interview in 2015 “John’s songs are so brilliant: he’s in a very uncrowded room at the top of a pyramid in his craft. He’s who Bob Dylan listens to”
Philip brought John Prine to Ireland for the first time in 1986, and two years later he invited him to take part in his televised concert series The Sessions, recorded at the newly opened Point Depot. It was at an after-party in in Blooms Hotel where Prine met his wife Fiona, from Ardara in Co Donegal. She was managing Windmill Lane studios at the time.
John Prine – “In the mid-80s I went to Ireland with Philip; it was the first time I’d played in Ireland and I didn’t want to go home. I only played two shows and stayed two weeks.
John and Fiona bought a house in Kinvara in 2005, and John always tried to get back in the months when he was off the road, usually in January/February and in the summer.
“When Philip and I get together, we hang out and shoot the breeze. He comes over to Kinvara to spend a few days and we’ll play some music in my local pub; I’ll go over to Tipperary and do the same. At that stage Philip was living in Clonmel, and Phil Carrolls pub was where they would go when John came to Tipperary.

Whenever john Prine visited his friend Philip Donnelly in Clonmel Phil Carrols pub was always on the agenda.
Michael McGrath (Phil Carrolls Pub Clonmel) has some great memories of them enjoying a few pints in the pub.
“Over the last number of years John Prine would come to Clonmel for a night or two to catch up and reminisce with Philip Donnelly.
They both liked a drink and John enjoyed his pints of Guinness. They would both sit at the bar all evening. They would wander down to Ming, in the Emperor, for some food and they would come back to the pub again to finish the night. At that stage word would have got out he was in the pub and some diehard fans would start turning up amazed to see one of the hero’s sitting in a local pub. John was always very friendly to anyone who approached, and they were welcomed to join the company and to listen to the many fantastic story’s thet John and Philip were recounting. John always obliged with a photo opportunity for everyone. Himself and Philip seemed to have a great bond and the stories would flow non-stop between the two of them. He really seemed to enjoy those nights with Philip over the last few years.”

John Prine October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020  (by Gerry Lawless)
John Prine, the ingenious American singer-songwriter who explored the heartbreaks, indignities and absurdities of everyday life in “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There” and scores of other indelible tunes, died recently at the age of 73.
John died of complications from the coronavirus in Nashville, Tennessee. Despite “the incredible skill and care of his medical team,” his wife Fiona Whelan Prine said, "he could not overcome the damage this virus inflicted on his body."
Fiona Whelan Prine said last month that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and she has since recovered, but her husband was hospitalised on March 26 with coronavirus symptoms and had to be put on a ventilator before he died on 07th April.
John joked that he fumbled so often on the guitar, taught to him as a teenager by his older brother, that people thought he was inventing a new style. But his open-heartedness, eye for detail and sharp and surreal humour brought him the highest admiration from critics, from such peers as Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, and from such younger stars as Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves. In 2017, Rolling Stone proclaimed him “The Mark Twain of American songwriting.”
Prine began playing as a young Army veteran who invented songs to fight boredom while delivering the U.S. mail in Maywood, Illinois. He sang at night at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Kris Kristofferson, a rising star at the time, heard him sing one night in Chicago, and invited him to share his stage in New York City, where the audience included Jerry Wexler, president of Atlantic Records. Wexler offered him a recording contract.
Prine’s first album, titled simply John Prine, was released in 1971. It was not a commercial success, but included a batch of songs that would come to be regarded as classics and would be extensively covered by other artists. These included Angel from Montgomery, Hello in There (a story of loneliness and ageing), Sam Stone (his angry story of a Vietnam veteran turned addict) and Paradise
He was among the many promoted as a “New Dylan” and among the few to survive it and find his own way. Few songwriters could equal his wordplay, his empathy or his imagination. “He writes beautiful songs,” Bob Dylan once told MTV producer Bill Flanagan. “I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about Sam Stone the soldier-junkie-daddy, and Donald and Lydia, where people make love from ten miles away -- nobody but Prine could write like that.”
Many artists adopted his songs. Bonnie Raitt made a signature tune out of “Angel from Montgomery,” about the stifled dreams of a lonely housewife, and performed it at the 2020 Grammys ceremony. Bette Midler recorded “Hello in There,” Prine’s poignant take on old age. Prine wrote “Unwed Fathers” for Tammy Wynette, and “Love Is on a Roll” for Don Williams.
Others who covered Prine’s music included Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, John Denver, the Everly Brothers, Carly Simon, George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Norah Jones and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Prine himself regarded Dylan and Cash as key influences, bridges between folk and country whose duet on Dylan’s country rock album “Nashville Skyline” made Prine feel there was a place for him in contemporary music. Though mostly raised in Maywood, he spent summers in Paradise, Kentucky, and felt so great an affinity to his family’s roots there he would call himself “pure Kentuckian.”
John Prine wrote about the problems of everyday life, about loneliness, the elderly, victims of war and those abandoned by the American dream, but did so with a blend of poignancy, anger and sudden bursts of humour.
Prine preferred songs about feelings to topical music, but he did respond at times to the day’s headlines. Prine’s parents had moved to suburban Chicago from Paradise, a coal town ravaged by strip mining that inspired one of his most cutting protest songs, Paradise. “the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel, and they tortured the timber and stripped all the land”.
Many years later, as President George W. Bush sent soldiers to war, Prine had a song for that, too. In “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” he wrote: “You’re feeling your freedom, and the world’s off your back, some cowboy from Texas, starts his own war in Iraq.”
Prine became known as something of a Nashville hellraiser, but his life changed after he married Donegal woman Fiona Whelan in 1993, five years after they met at a party in Dublin. He became a father for the first time at the age of 48, and Fiona, his third wife, became co-manager of Oh Boy Records, his independent record label.
His flourishing career received a major setback in 1997 when he was diagnosed with neck cancer. Surgery and radiation treatment the following year led to a change in his voice – it became deeper – but he continued writing and performing. In 1999 he released In Spite of Ourselves, an album of country duets in which he was joined by female country stars including Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris, and in 2005 he released Fair and Square, a set of new songs that won him another Grammy.
Prine did not record another album of new self-composed songs for 13 years, and in that period he released two albums of cover versions (including a second set of duets with female country stars) and suffered further health problems. In 2013 he was operated on for lung cancer, and though a part of one lung had been removed, he continued performing.
His early album sleeves had shown him as a cheerful-looking figure sporting an array of different moustaches, but for the cover of his massively successful 2018 comeback set, The Tree of Forgiveness, he showed how his appearance had changed because of the surgery. The album included songs about lost love and mortality, as well as the witty and angry Lonesome Friends of Science, that somehow combined his thoughts on the largest cast-iron statue in the world, the demotion of Pluto from planet to a star and his own lifestyle. It proved that his writing was still as individual as ever. The album was a Top 5 hit in the US.
John Prine won four Grammy awards, including a lifetime achievement award in 2020. He is survived by Fiona, and their sons, Jack, Tommy and Jody.
The final track on the last album John Prine released is called "When I Get to Heaven," and on it, he lays out his plans for the afterlife.
“When I get to heaven, I'm gonna shake God's hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I'm gonna get a guitar and start a rock and roll band
Check into a swell hotel, ain't the afterlife grand ?
And then I'm "gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale."
And I'm gonna "smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long."
I'm "kiss that pretty girl on the Tilt-A-Whirl, 'cause this old man is going to town."

The President Michael D. Higgins wrote in tribute “He had a great love for the Irish landscape, especially the Burren and Flaggy Shore, as well as for the Irish people with whom he felt a great freedom. He was held in deep affection and warmth in particular in the village of Kinvara, where he had a home, and where his sessions in Greene’s were legendary. Despite being one of Johnny Cash’s ‘big four’ he was marked by a great humility. He always used local musicians as support acts for his concerts in Ireland, and collaborated with renowned Irish musicians, such as Dolores Keane, Paul Brady, Declan O’Rourke, Arty McGlynn, and most particularly before his passing, ‘the clontarf cowboy’ Philip Donnelly. It was fitting that he was the last act to play a concert in Seapoint as a venue before it was converted to a bingo hall”


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