This weekend, Country and Midwestern is headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville!
On Sunday (Oct. 8) I’m appearing on a special panel discussion focused on John Prine’s tenure in Chicago. “Prine Time Chicago,” is part of You Got Gold, a three-day celebration (Oct. 7-10) of John to benefit the Hello in There Foundation operated by the Prine family. Named after John’s famed song about the silent lives of the elderly, the foundation “aims to identify and collaborate with individuals and communities to offer support for people who are marginalized, discriminated against or, for any reason, are otherwise forgotten.”
The discussion features CMHOF’s RJ Smith talking onstage with me, Chicago singer-songwriter Bonnie Koloc, and Greg Cahill of Special Consensus, about Chicago’s influence on John and Steve Goodman, and the wider cultural impact of Southerners in the city. A performance will follow, as well as a book signing.
This is obviously an honor. Some of my research for Country and Midwestern took me to the CMHOF archives and it, of course, serves as the mothership of country music history. I’m grateful for the invite and proud that Chicago’s role in country and folk music history is being recognized this way.
Learn more about the “Prine Time Chicago” event here. You Got Gold features tours and concerts throughout Nashville, including one Tuesday the famed Ryman Auditorium. See you in Nashville!
Good times in Louisville, Chicago, Winnetka
I had a great time in Louisville in late August talking with guitarist Nathan Salsburg at Carmichael’s Bookstore, the city’s oldest independent bookseller. Nathan knew the book deeply and we talked about how it is among a few other books out this year that expands the story of country music from the one we’ve known until recently. And what a great bookstore! Beautifully located in the city’s Crescent Hill neighborhood, which I can confirm is on a giant hill. The presence of Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin in the audience made it a special evening.
In Chicago, the Printer’s Row Lit Fest took place over a beautiful weekend in early September. Famed Chicago Tribune journalist Rick Kogan and musician Jon Langford, who did the cover art for Country and Midwestern, joined me at an outside stage where we talked for an hour and Jon performed some songs — the first, most notably, “The Death of Country Music” by the Waco Brothers. We had a great turnout and I’m proud to say the longest line that day (or so I was told) of people getting books signed. Thanks to everyone who joined us.
Thanks also to Chicago writer Bobby Reed for his preview of the event in Block Club Chicago. Bobby interviewed me, ran photos pulled from the book, and said it “illustrates the ways in which obscure Chicago musicians, as well as owners of long-forgotten taverns and venues, have been just as important to the city’s arts scene as high-profile stars like Wilco.”
In Winnetka, I enjoyed an event hosted by Robert McDonald of the Book Stall, an institution on Chicago’s North Shore. Robert likewise asked compelling questions and the evening ended with audience members sharing stories of their experiences along different moments of the country music timeline in Chicago. If you want a signed copy, go to the Book Stall! I signed several stacks worth for the upcoming holiday season. Thank you also to Betsy Griebenow of the Winnetka-Northfield Public Library District, which co-hosted the event!
RIP Dave Prine
Multi-instrumentalist Dave Prine died Sept. 23 in Maywood, Illinois, just outside Chicago. He was 85.
The wider world recognizes Dave as the person who taught the guitar to his younger brother John Prine. However, Dave was also the main driver behind “a renegade element of old-time musicians” in Chicago in the 1960s who were adamant to play the old songs — at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was here to stay. He was a direct product of the Old Town School of Folk Music, first as a student and later as a teacher.
I was lucky enough in December 2016 to visit Dave in his living room in Maywood. I took his oral history for my book, and our conversation lasted three-plus hours. What follows are a few excerpts. I’ll share more in future newsletters.
I was born in Melrose Park November 2, 1937. I’m 79.
My folks are from Kentucky. I grew up listening to country music. My grandmother and grandfather had a big stack of 78s with Carter Family and Roy Acuff and all of that. My dad was a big fan of Hank Williams.
My father’s parents were up here. My mother’s folks were still in Kentucky. My granddad Hamm. My mother’s maiden name was Hamm. He’s probably where the music in this family comes down from. He played guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and played down on the local radio stations in Kentucky. Muhlenberg County. The original Hamm family settled in the family in 1794. John Luther Hamm. The Hamms came to North Carolina from Germany in 1759. Then they migrated in Kentucky in 1794 and have been there ever since.
My father’s family, his mother’s family, are the Smiths. They are from Kentucky. The original Smith in Kentucky settled in 1804. The Smiths go back to the colonies. They are the original Smiths. Peter Smith came to Virginia in 1659 and had a royal land grant. Which meant he had to be buddy-buddy with the head honchos over there. That was a very volatile situation. I’ve never found out more than that portion.
My great-granddad William Henderson Smith was in the Civil War. And got wounded in Shiloh. And survived the wound. They left the ball in and didn’t try to cut it out. Went back to Kentucky as a recruiter and then in 1864 signed up again because he hadn’t had enough fun. He was with Sherman when they marched on Atlanta. The stories my dad told me about him. He was a wild man. He was a heavy drinker. He traded his horse for a gallon of whiskey. And he was sort of the leading guy in the GAR, the Grand Army of the Republic. He was known as the ever-popular Billy Smith. That’s where my background comes from.
My earliest serious music was New Orleans jazz. When I was in high school. At one point I acquired a drum-and-bugle-corps one bell bugle. Then somebody gave me a uke. I thought, “hey this is pretty easy.” I had the uke down with me in school in Champaign. Somewhere in my senior year I sat on it. That was the temporary end of my music career.
I got a cheap Montgomery Wards guitar. I heard about the Old Town School of Folk Music and thought I’d go down there and learn the right way. It was 1962. I took a guitar a couple of years by a guy name of Ray Tate. He was the faculty head of the Old Town School. He started right after Frank Hamilton left. The thing I was really intrigued with was the banjo. The Old Town School had a really good banjo player, Fleming Brown, who was one of the best modern interpreters of the old music. I started taking lessons from Fleming from 1963 to 1966.
I’m in the class one day and he comes walking in — Fleming was very volatile to put it mildly. He says, “I’m not going to do this shit anymore.” He looks at me and says, “you’re going to teach the class.” I ended up teaching banjo there up until the early 1970s.
In 1966 I decided we needed a fiddler. So I taught myself to do it and it was hell. It’s a very unforgiving instrument. Finally, I got where I could play reasonable dance tunes. I ended up teaching fiddle at the school. Nobody would believe what I’d tell them, that the way you learn to play the fiddle is you listen and you listen and listen. I said, “I don’t read and I don’t write. So you bring your tape recorder and you record it and I’ll play it for you and I’ll play it slow and we’ll do it.” It was very difficult.
[Old Town School co-founder] Win [Stracke] was still there and was a fairly big presence. The format they had was, you come in and you have a lesson. The lessons were an hour and a half. And then there was a coffee break. And then they had a Second Half. Everyone went into one room. And a faculty member would lead a big sing-along. And Win would show up frequently for that. The person who was running the school at that time was Dawn Greening. And Dawn was Mother Earth. She was a people’s person. She was very nurturing. She also ruled with an iron fist. It was this amazing combination. And she really loved the music. Everything from the Southern mountain stuff, which was my first love, to Spanish music. She was an amazing lady.
The Old Town School started in her living room in Oak Park. It was her, Win Stracke, and Frank Hamilton. And then gradually the original Chicago school was on North Avenue, North and Sedgewick. And then it moved to Armitage. Now it’s all over the place. They’re into everything now.
That was my start. A buddy of mine, Tyler Wilson, who lives in Evanston, he and I met in 1964. And then we started playing. One of the women at the school … had this great idea to start Friends of Old-Time Music here in Chicago. The first meeting we had was in my house. We rented a place at First Avenue in Maywood. A big Victorian house. Very large living room and a large yard. It was the perfect place. Tyler and his wife Joan showed up. That’s when I met him. He and I hit it off right away and started playing music together. That was in 1966.
It was a bunch of people who liked the old-time music. There were always a lot of different things going on at the school. There were a lot of singer-songwriters that came out of there. My brother. But there was also this renegade element of us old-time musicians who were adamant. “This is what we want to play, damnit!”
The Friends of Old-Time Music grew, and it was a bunch of people who liked to play. It was in the true spirit of the music. Old-time music is when they played when you didn’t have radios. Maybe play for a dance. So, there were a handful of musicians who migrated into this. Ultimately, we also crossed paths with a group of Irish musicians, which Chicago has an abundant supply of. So we had had an Irish party!
It was totally informal. Usually, we’d have a cookout. Have a meal, sit around and pick. We didn’t put on shows. In fact, at that point, it was really loose and informal. We had fallen into a groove and play. But there wasn’t any real arrangement of it. The first public performing Tyler and I ever did, briefly we had a string band with Fleming. Ultimately ended up being the Original Fleming Brown String Band. Me and Tyler and Fleming and a guy named Rod Johnson who also played banjo and guitar. At one point, we did a program for WTTW and shared it with George and Gerri Armstrong and their kids. That was my shot at TV. It was the late 1960s.
The other part of our musical development was in 1966, I drove a bunch of kids from the school … to the Rackensack Folk Festival in Arkansas. I fell utterly in love with Stone County, Arkansas because it reminded me so much of Paradise when I was a kid. The roads were gravel and you had to get across the river in a ferry. When we started going down there the music was very local. Fiddle styles and banjo styles I hadn’t heard except right there. We sort of fell right into it. We went down there twice a year for years. We would take off work on a Friday night and drive overnight. It’s 600 miles. That’s when we took my brother John down there. He still goes.
When I started taking guitar, Ray Tate was into Carter Family and early bluegrass. So, I learned a lot of good basic guitar stuff. I learned how to play like Mother Maybelle. But he gradually went from there to higher and higher and higher levels of stuff I wasn’t really interested in. And then I got hooked up with Fleming. The thing about Fleming, not only was he a helluva musician, but he had this absolutely awesome collection of old-time music that he made up over the years of 78s and tapes and live stuff and all kinds of things. He really immersed me in it.
Him and the New Lost City Ramblers. I never saw the original group play because [Tom] Paley split by 1960. But they were the house band at the University of Chicago Folk Festival. The University of Chicago Folk Festival to me, that was the high point of our year. All of the old-timers were alive. Roscoe Holcomb was there. Hobart Smith. I saw the Stanley Brothers when it was the original pair of brothers. Mother Maybelle. It was heavy on traditional Southern mountain music and Delta blues.
I loved [my grandfather in Kentucky]. And I was his favorite. Which was a damn nice deal. I’d go down there, and he’d play the guitar. I was totally fascinated. One time my folks were going on a long trip. I think they were going down the Smokies. They left me with him. I was maybe 10 years old. I stayed with him for a week. He had been a carpenter in the mines. He was retired from that. He ran the ferry crossing at Paradise and also fished and sold fish. He ran trout lines and traps in the river. We’d get up at sunup and we’d run his trout lines. That was cool. But then we’d have breakfast and he’d get out his guitar and play. He taught me to play the spoons. I thought I was really hot shit. Wow, look at what I can do! He was special to me.
He had a friend who helped him run the ferry. The only Black person in Paradise. Bubby Short. Bubby was a great character. He lived in a houseboat down by the ferry crossing. The whole reason for Paradise existing was the ferry crossing. We caught a big catfish. Catfish are hard to kill. They got a skull that I think is made out of reinforced concrete. You can bust a hammer and they’ll still going. And Bubby says, “I can show you how to kill a catfish with a broom straw.” And I say, “okay I gotta see this.” He had this big ‘ol catfish and lays him out. He made a little cut behind the skull and poked a little broom straw in. I think he got the spinal column. And he wiggled it and that was it, he was gone. It probably goes back forever and ever.
The other interesting thing about Bubby was his outhouse was the last standing structure in Paradise. John and I were down there, it was still recognizable at that point. They hadn’t stripped out the whole town. The road was still there. So, we went down there and were snooping around. There was this outhouse. It had to be Bubby’s outhouse because it was right next to the river. He had the great honor and being the owner of the last standing structure in Paradise.
My mother’s family has a reunion every year on Labor Day weekend. John and I would always go out to Paradise and look at it. It was completely unrecognizable. They dug up everything. The only thing left was the old Smith Family cemetery. Old Smith graves. But that was about it. A lot of it has been reclaimed. A couple of the Smith boys, grandkids, bought it back for a dime on the dollar. They were going to do a dude ranch. But the latter portions of the Smith family were not, as a friend of mine used to say, slaves to ambition. So, they had great plans, but it never took off!
My mother’s father never came up here. The only time I ever saw him was when I went to Kentucky which was every summer. The trip from here to Muhlenberg County was a trip. During the War you couldn’t get tires. We always had secondhand tires. My dad had a 39 Desoto that had belonged to my grandfather. I don’t think we ever made a trip down there without a blowout.
One time on the way back we blew a head gasket. The car overheated and steamed. We pulled into this farmyard and there were a bunch of kids playing. The old man popped the hood. He asked the kids, “could we get some water for the car?” The kids bring a milk can filled with water and they’re pouring it into the radiator, and they put a whole damn can in and it still ain’t full. There is one kid standing at the back of the car and said, “mister I think there’s water coming out of your exhaust pipe!” Somehow, he got that damn thing started and we drove at least five miles back to a gas station. This is down in southern Illinois. He called home and my grandfather came down, his dad, to come pick us up.
There were very few [Southerners in Maywood]. In fact, I don’t think there were any of them. When I was in grade school, one day we were supposed to find out what our nationalities were. So, I came home, and I said to the old man, “what’s my nationality?” And he said, “you’re a Kentuckian by damn!” That was good enough for me. And so, I go back to school and this kid’s from Poland and this one’s from Ireland and this one’s from Italy. And she comes to me, and I said, “I’m a Kentuckian.” Hell, I thought it was totally legitimate. As far as I was concerned, Kentucky was as far away from here as Russia!
I’m the living legend in the family. The story is I taught John his three chords. And I actually did. But he went on from there. The one story that blew my mind: He and I would get together and play. When I passed from guitar to banjo and fiddle. And we’d do old-time songs. We’d do Charlie and Bill Monroe. I was in school. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1960. One night we sat down, and we were diddling around, and John says, “I’ve been writing some songs lately.” Oh, that’s interesting, will you play a couple for me? Jesus, this is my little brother. It was two or three of the biggies. He was writing this stuff as a teenager. It just blew me away.
The town was crawling with singer-songwriters and with rare exceptions, most of them weren’t real good. John, in my humble opinion he’s one of the two best. Dylan being the other one. Of the two I prefer him. But I’m prejudiced. It blew my mind. My little brother! God. Where did this come from!
John does not have an ego. So, he always claimed he started writing songs because he couldn’t remember songs that other people had written. But that ain’t any of it. The thing about it is, he’s got this natural poet talent. He’s a poet more than anything else. He’s not a hot musician. His stuff is really solid and real straight and nothing fancy and is what’s needed. But his writing. He can say in five words what most people can say in a book. And most of the time you hear it a second and third time and you hear new things.
When he started playing that was when a lot of the Vietnam protests started going on. He wrote a couple of songs that were the most powerful anti-war songs I had ever heard. And they didn’t bang you over the head. They sort of slipped in. It was like, “whoa.” Most of them were beating you over the head with it.
He and Stevie Goodman, they were buddy-buddies. I hung out with them a lot. Steve was another one who was a hell of a talent and a songwriter. It’s too damn bad he didn’t live a little longer. God, he was good. And energetic. I saw him play at the Earl [of Old Town] when he was getting the treatments for leukemia. The way it was working, he would take a treatment here in Chicago which would knock the crap out of him. Then he would go to New York to get the second treatment from Sloan-Kettering.
If you were backstage the guy was a pale shade of gray and sweating and it looked like he’s going to die in five minutes. He comes out on the stage and Christ, he’s bouncing off the walls. I think he had a nuclear power plant in him. The guy was really energetic. He’d do a set and go back in the room and throw up. He did three sets. I don’t know where he’s getting that, but it is awesome.
One of my best memories of Steve is when John did his second album, Diamonds in the Rough. It was done in New York at Atlantic. A bunch of the stuff on there was stuff John and I did together many times. He wanted me to come out there because he wanted my funky country shit behind it instead of some high-class New York musician.
So, the last day Goodman showed up. We were going to do the title song for the album. Which was an old Carter Family hymn called “Diamonds in the Rough.” We did it acapella, me and John and Steve. We did it with one mike. We start singing this thing and we only did a verse and a chorus. I think it took 17 takes. Everything we did on the album was done in one or two takes. We would sing a line and Goodman would crack a joke. There was one line in there, “When Jesus comes to claim us,” and Goodman adds, “at the great dry cleaners in the sky.” We broke up. At one point I said, “Steve I’m going to put a bag over you.”
We finally got done with it and the recording engineer was Arif Martin. He flips the PA on and says, “fantastic!” When you put it all together it sounds totally seamless. It sounded like we got up there and sang three-part harmony. And John and I made him leave the “fantastic” in.