It was a Thursday like any other, except this time there was a party for John Prine.
More specifically, it was a party for his record label, Oh Boy, that the iconic songwriter had started 40 years prior in 1981. Even more than that, his debut self-titled album dropped 50 years ago to the day. (September 23rd) Needless to say, it was John’s day.
His memory and his record company prowess that is carried on by his family would be celebrated at 1 Cannery Row, more specifically Mercy Lounge, on a bright and sunny Nashville afternoon.
After the parking meter swallowed a good chunk of my silver, I meandered down and around to the winding 9-mile-long line outside of the venue. It went all the way to the dead-end-back where a select chunk of us were crammed beside walls and fencing.
“Excuse me, excuse me- the line starts back here guys,” an impatient man said to a couple who didn’t notice the narrow curling of the line. Before long, the curled line straightened out, and in we marched.
A delightful cluster of orange balloons tied to the banister greeted us, as well as an impressive array of colorful cupcakes on the bar with orange and black napkins. I suppose Halloween was also around the corner- two birds one (Sam) stone.
Via projector, a montage of Prine footage was shown on stage with songs of his playing loud and proud. Naturally, the first song I heard was “When I Get To Heaven.” I mean how fitting. I would probably say how fitting to any Prine song they’d have chosen, though. But really.
It was a warm and welcoming environment, and it never felt overcrowded. I found a table near the front, to which I shared conversation with a man from D.C. who had traveled down with his wife for Americanafest, and this specific soiree was one of the primary showcases he’d be attending. He told me he’d seen Prine numerous times in D.C. and elsewhere and had been a lifelong fan. With shame and regret, I told him I never got to see him.
Before long, Fiona Whelan Prine would take the stage in somewhat of a quick shuffle. “Sorry, I was just eating a snack and realized I had to get up here.”
She went on to thank everybody for coming and celebrating Oh Boy and John. “It’s bittersweet, more sweet than anything,” she said. She discussed John’s displeasure with the big labels, hence his deciding to make his own in the dawn of the 1980s.
After a quick introduction and speech, her son and one of the head honchos of the label, Jody Whelan, would go on to emcee the artists one by one that would be performing.
First was Dan Reeder, an older more eclectic songwriter who apparently couldn’t get out of Germany in time to make the event, so he filmed a video he’d made, which was then projected for all to see.
And despite his warm, grandfatherly tone, it was soon clear he doesn’t stick to conventional PG family-friendly lyrics.
After hearing a few peaceful and gentle songs, he started the next with the line, “Don’t fucking puke in my car, you say…” I instantly knew why John had signed and befriended him. I’d imagined them to be something of kindred spirits. His playing was delicate and gentle, his lyrics witty and endearing, and vocal delivery weathered yet charming.
“Gin and tonic was a hobby of mine / Didn’t care for beer / Whiskey tasted like turpentine,” he continued to sing in the booze-fueled folk tune. I’d heard of Reeder before, and after seeing him and simply browsing song titles of his, I was officially a fan. He is definitely a unique cat.
He closed with “Angel From Montgomery,” which evoked tears and a somberness among the crowd. I noticed one woman with a teal stripe in her hair sitting by the Emergency Exit charging her phone wiping away a few.
The newest addition to the Oh Boy family would be the first to play in person, and that was Emily Scott Robinson. A North Carolina native, Robinson immediately won the crowd over with her strong, heartfelt vocals, All-American southern belle appearance, and a smile that would’ve enticed producers of Listerine and Crest commercials.
She discussed getting signed to Oh Boy, and how Jody had essentially messaged her on Instagram asking her if she wanted to join the label. “You know, usually you get all kinds of spam on there, like ‘increase your followers and likes” and all that, and then I get one offering me a record deal- and that turned out to be legit.”
After rifling off some tunes steeped in folk, singer-songwriter pop, and even gospel, Robinson tentatively put down her guitar and made her way to the Nord piano. “I’ve only ever played this in a church and a studio- same thing,” she said. With nerves peaking, she proceeded to serenade the lounge with her new song, “Let ‘Em Burn,” which dropped at midnight that day. She definitely made some new fans after her performance.
Following Robinson was Arlo McKinley, who picked his way through a bit of a heavy folk set. Lots of darker and closer-to-home themes, and his big booming voice expressed serious emotion and conviction. “If I don’t leave now / I’ll never leave Ohio / That’s a chance I’m gonna take / Now that I’m older,” he sang.
His bold arm tattoos and bushy beard made him stand out no doubt, let alone his mountain-moving vocal delivery. “John said this song is pretty good- I’ll take it,” he said before picking the next number.
“Life, I don’t want it / If it’s so easy to die,” he closed with, leaving a sense of dread and uneasiness in the audience.
“Bit of a downer that guy,” says my D.C. friend.
After much fanfare from Whelan about the next performer, including holding up his new record, You, Yeah, You, and saying “I hope I don’t embarrass him too much,” Tre Burt, the Sacramento songwriter came on stage to deliver.
“Thanks Jody- and yeah you did kind of embarrass me,” he said in jest.
“Arlo left on a pretty depressing note, so I’m gonna carry on with that,” he said before playing his tune, “Solo.”
Burt had a solid finger-picking style to his guitar playing, and coupled with his raspy and unique vocal delivery, it drew definite comparisons to Dylan. He rocked the harp around the neck, blowing the reeds with the conviction of a 1964 Newport Folk Fest regular, and singing very timely and socially conscious songs.
He had a very funny and dry-humor heir to his stage presence, and kept things casual and modest. Little quips here and there, and he definitely was a favorite of the day.
Kelsey Waldon would close things out, and after a minor snafu in jumbling and forgetting some of her lyrics, she got back on course and proved why she’s one of the heavy hitters in modern, traditional country music. Her rural Kentucky background and roots shine through her songs, and gives all the relatable and endearing blue-collar feels. She’s another one that swoons with her delicate southern accent and shy demeanor.
Waldon was also one of the last Oh Boy artists John himself helped bring aboard, and their relationship was evident, as they’d toured together for a brief time and undoubtedly shared a bond. It seemed as though she was a bit sad and not terribly enthused, as she had little to say in the beginning and throughout. She also mentioned the lack of playing shows and it being a bit strange in that regard.
Naturally I never knew John, but he had a way about him in his music, videos, and photos, that made it seem like I did. Like we all did. He had that magic within him to make us laugh, cry, ponder, scratch our heads, and did it all with genuine authenticity. He seemed like everyone else. Never one to put on heirs and possess an overbearing ego. He seemed like your fun uncle, or that one kooky friend your dad brings to his weekly poker games. The fun uncle or kooky dad friend who also happens to be a genius songwriter.
John Prine is and will always be missed, but his memory lives on through not only his music, but the Oh Boy label and artists that represent it. The celebration at Mercy Lounge was a wonderful ode to him and his work, and of course the work of the artists who keep his legacy alive while establishing their own.