Remembering John Prine: A Biscuits & Jam Tribute with Fiona Prine
About Biscuits & Jam: In the South, talking about food is personal. It's a way of sharing your history, your family, your culture, and yourself. Each week Sid Evans, Editor in Chief of Southern Living, sits down with celebrity musicians to hear stories of how they grew up, what inspired them, and how they've been shaped by Southern culture. Sid takes us back to some of their most cherished memories and traditions, the family meals they still think about, and their favorite places to eat on the road.
Episode: October 5, 2021
If you've followed our podcast since our launch in the summer of 2020, you know that we've put a spotlight on musicians, discussing how the worlds of songwriting, food, and family intersect. Few people understood that better than John Prine, who died in April of 2020 due to complications from COVID-19.
Often referred to as the Mark Twain of folk music, Prine's influence spans generations, genres, and genders. One of his best known songs, "Angel from Montgomery" puts his voice in the shoes of a middle-aged woman at the end of her rope. And this song, "Hello In There," speaks to the loneliness of aging, asking the listener to consider reaching out to folks who are often forgotten. Like so many great artists, Prine had a way of connecting with people outside of his own experience.
But John was just as well known for his sense of humor, and there were often tales of the Midwestern food he grew up on as a kid in Maywood, Illinois. He loved hot dogs and meat loaf, and legend has it he even traveled with his own condiments.
With this week marking what would've been his 75th birthday, I asked his widow, Fiona Whelan Prine, to share stories about John's legacy, the independent record label he began 40 years ago this year, and his deep connection to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.
On John's Impact on Others
"Jody and I were speaking about this recently, I think it's going to take me, at least to have some time to step back and really look at everything that happened. It was overwhelming at times, the reaction from friends and fans and family around the world. While I can't say it was unexpected because on that night and those days after John passed, it was the biggest devastation in our lives–for me and the boys...
So on the one hand, it came as no surprise that the world also stopped and said, 'oh, my God, we've lost John.' But it felt justified. It felt right, because indeed it was a cry to the heavens. 'Oh, my God, what's happened?' But obviously, since that time, we have really started to – a little bit – understand just the depth of connection that he had to so many people in our world, within the music industry, within singer/songwriters, musicians from all walks of life, and then people. We've had letters from Australia, from New Zealand, from all over Europe, from Ireland, of course, where he was greatly loved — still is loved and so missed. So it's been a whole thing unto itself. I'm not even sure that I have language yet to describe it but it has kept us going. It has kept us busy. It has kept us engaged with John's legacy, with all of the wonderful songs that he left for us to work with. It has left us a community– and friendships beyond anything we could have imagined. So you're right. It's been overwhelming but in the most beautiful way."
On John's Connection to Kentucky
"Kentucky was very important to John. In fact, I think it's true to say that when John and I met, it was our rural beginnings, our rural backgrounds that really connected us in a pretty deep way from the get go. He was proud to be from Kentucky. He has a big family that still lives in those areas. Family was important to John. And I think the correlation between my life and his life when we met...We met in Ireland and I brought him to visit and see some of my relatives over those first couple of years when we knew each other. And honestly, the more humble and happy and chaotic, some of those family homes were, the more content John was…
Kentucky was important to John. And getting to know his relatives was very important to me. And I loved all of his mother's sisters, the ones that he talks about in songs and in interviews. All of those women were just phenomenal, including the ones that are left. A lot of them have now passed, including John's mother, of course, but they were mighty fine folk. They really were. All of them."
On John's Love for Arnold's Country Kitchen in Nashville
"We were both really fond and are very fond of the Arnold family…He loved how they prepared their food. I think it really reminded him of his own mother's cooking… That's all the kinds of things that she made, the meatloaf and the mac and cheese and the mashed potatoes and the gravy. Gravy was like a sacrament to John. He would make a writing appointment with one of his co-writers. And they would meet here at the house or they'd meet at the writers place but it was always typically on days where meat loaf was circulating around the meat and threes. So I think it was Tuesdays, maybe at Arnolds?"
On Singing Together at Home
"All the time. I was much better singing at home than I ever was on stage. And we loved to listen to music and sing in the car. We did that for sure. And, you know, we started that from the first month we met. We had the exact same taste in music. I knew all the country songs and then he loved Van Morrison... I'll never forget the day he came into the kitchen, and there were several moments like this over time. But he came in and said 'Fi, get in your car right now and go listen to this. You're going to flip.' I said, Really?' and I knew because if he said I was going to flip, I was going to flip. And it was Jason Isbell's Southeastern."
This interview has been condensed.
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