John Prine’s songwriting mastery enlightens ACL’s 44th season

photo by Scott Newton

Austin City Limits proudly presents a Season 44 highlight: a golden hour with celebrated singer-songwriter John Prine. The American original shines in his first ACL appearance since 2005, showcasing beloved classics alongside selections from The Tree of Forgiveness, his first collection of new material in 13 years, and the highest-charting release of his storied five-decade career.

Prine made his ACL debut on Season 3 in 1978 and returns for his eighth appearance during a banner year; he is a first-time nominee for the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and was named Artist of the Year for the second consecutive year at the 2018 Americana Honors & Awards. The 72-year old folk hero captivates with his astute songwriting in this career-spanning hour, introducing many of the songs with his unique humor and wit. Prine dazzles with his singular knack for storytelling on subjects as varied as sticking up for the dwarf planet Pluto, and the rituals of egg farmers in Lincoln, Nebraska.

He opens the show climbing The Tree of Forgiveness with his four-piece band, performing seven selections from the acclaimed release, before taking the stage solo for a singalong of his early career highlight “Illegal Smile,” the opening track on his self-titled 1971 debut. Prine is joined by Kentucky native and rising songwriter Tyler Childers, who duets with his mentor on the musical last will and testament “Please Don’t Bury Me” from 1973’s Sweet Revenge. The fan favorite “Lake Marie” showcases Prine’s masterful way with words before he caps the heartfelt set with a pair of gems: new album closer “When I Get to Heaven,” and his classic “Paradise,” the final track on his ‘71 debut. Bouncing back and forth between spoken recitation and joyful singing on “When I Get to Heaven,” the songwriter offers a good-time singalong about leaving this world on a high note. When Prine gets to heaven, he tells the Austin crowd, “I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock ’n’ roll band/check into a swell hotel/ain’t the afterlife grand?”

photo by Scott Newton

“John Prine is a unicorn,” says ACL executive producer Terry Lickona, “a true original among American songwriters, unlike any other. What better way to celebrate his birthday week and his nomination to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame than to show what he does best – sing the songs he wrote, old and new, to an adoring audience and with his devilish sense of humor very much intact.”

Tune in this weekend for this episode, and, as always, check your local PBS listings for the broadcast time in your area. Go to the episode page for more info, and don’t forget to click over to our Facebook, Twitter and newsletter pages for more ACL info. Join us next week for a brand new episode featuring blue-eyes soul singers Sam Smith and Anderson East.

John Prine’s triumphant return to ACL

photo by Scott Newton

Singing and songwriting legend John Prine has been through some trials and tribulations since the last time he visited the Austin City Limits stage in 2005, but he’s come through it all swinging with a hugely acclaimed, top 5 record The Tree of Forgiveness. That album formed the heart of the setlist for his eighth ACL appearance and the longtime Nashvillian graced us with a funny, moving performance.

Before giving us Forgiveness, however, Prine dipped into his debut album for a pair of well-loved classics. Taking the stage with his four-piece band (including guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist David Jacques, last here with Prine in Season 31) to huge applause, the Illinois native opened with the lovely “Six O’Clock News,” from his 1971 self-titled debut. “This song goes out to Bonnie Raitt,” he said as he went into the timeless classic “Angel From Montgomery,” made famous by the singing slide guitarist. Then it was into The Tree of Forgiveness with the sprightly “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” the first of seven in a row from the new landmark. “Caravan of Fools” followed, a song co-written with Dan Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin and featuring, as Prine noted, “has more verses than there are original members in the cabinet of the present administration.” He dipped into the more humorous side of his personality for the wry “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska (Crazy Bone),” before dedicating the heartfelt “Boundless Love” to his wife Fiona. “This next song is probably, at least for me, the prettiest song on The Tree of Forgiveness,” he said by way of introduction to “Summer’s End,” a tune that indeed could have competed in the musical equivalent of a beauty pageant. The folky “I Have Met My Love Today” returned to the theme of found love, while “Lonesome Friends of Science” sardonically saluted the dwarf planet Pluto and the Greek god Vulcan – “the only thing Pluto and Vulcan have in common is that they’re both in my song.”

The band then quit the stage, leaving Prine by himself to dig deep into his catalog. He started the solo portion of the set with the passively defiant “Everything is Cool,” from the early 90s’ hit The Missing Years. Then he returned to his first album for its opening cut “Illegal Smile,” which turned into a singalong during the chorus – the audience even sang the final chorus “solo.” Prine climbed the Tree again for “No Ordinary Blue,” a song about a couple’s argument that he wrote with old pal Keith Sykes. Prine then welcomed newcomer Tyler Childers to the stage, duetting on Sweet Revenge’s “Please Don’t Bury Me” and letting the young Kentucky native singer/songwriter do his own “Lady May” alone.

Prine and his band returned to the stage and went into “Lake Marie,” a fan favorite from Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings that serves as an anthem as much as a story song. The penultimate song in the set was the final song on Tree, the raucous, oft-hilarious “When I Get to Heaven,” featuring the band on kazoos during the instrumental break. Prine and company finished the set with his classic “Paradise,” another gem from his ‘71 debut, this version enhanced by a returning Tyler Childers. The crowd went crazy, letting Prine know just how much his artistry is loved and appreciated. It was a fitting end to a great set, and we can’t wait for you to see it when Prine’s episode airs this fall as part of ACL’s Season 44.