Interview: Billy Prine on a life with brother John, recording and podcasting

A  few days after what would have been John Prine’s 74th birthday Americana UK’s Lyndon Bolton spent a fascinating hour chatting over Zoom with his younger brother Billy in Nashville. With him was Billy’s good friend and musical partner, Michael Dinallo. As in their ‘Prine Time’ podcast, Billy and Michael proved amusing and insightful company on a musical sweep of over half a century.  Naturally, John was never far away as was the palpable sense of Billy’s deep love for his brother.

How would you describe the legacy of John Prine?
BP Musically and as a songwriter John is up there with Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. Those are his peers. John was an incredible performer, his shows were great and he had a great band. He always did a long show of two, two and a half hours, man he was like the Grateful Dead. More recently his shows were shorter but he always had a great audience, people would kill for his audience. Parents would tell their children, they would tell somebody else. News about his shows would spread like wildfire, especially in the past few years. He was the best and greatest brother I could ever wish for. I got three brothers, two are gone now. Doug passed away eight years ago. I’m the youngest and our oldest brother Dave is still around, living in Chicago. But John and me were really close. We were seven years apart but, especially in our twenties, we did a lot of hanging out. I was his tour manager for a year way back in 1978 when he took a full band out. Previously he went solo usually. That was the funniest year of my life. We had great times, just being out there on the road.

What were the most fun moments?
BP Oh just being on the tour bus and meeting people. I met all kinds of people; Phil Spector and we did a lot of shows with Jerry Jeff Walker, he was a great guy. I even met Dizzy Gillespie! I’d never have met any of these people on my own. But it was through John. People loved him. A lot of people really loved him. They still do. That’s a big part of his legacy.

Obviously, you can’t do anything now with the pandemic but have you begun to think about some kind of tribute?
BP I’m sure there will be some kind of live tribute show once they get covid under control. I’m thinking about a big concert sometime next year. So many people would want to play. John’s been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I’m hoping he gets that. He deserves it, and also the Country Music Hall of Fame.

How did you get into music? What was John’s influence?
BP I was a kid in the early ’60s, John got out of high school in the mid-’60s. Our brother Dave had started going to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, started by Win Stracke back in the ’50s, where he took guitar and banjo lessons. Dave talked John into going too. Then John showed me some of the stuff he’d learned there and some of the records he’d been listening to like Elizabeth Cotten. He turned me on to Bob Dylan. My brother Dave was really into The New Lost City Ramblers and that kind of stuff. So I was fortunate to have all that in my very formative years. And of course, our mom and dad were not musicians but they listened to a lot of music. They took me to shows, I was four when I saw Johnny Cash! I was eight when they took me to see Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours. I was lucky, I got to see a lot of good stuff. The whole family was musical, only three of us played instruments and sang but the appreciation of music was there.

You all started out in folk so when did other genres emerge?
BP I was a big Beatles fan, like everybody, then I got into the Rolling Stones. Then I started looking at the record covers and asked who wrote this song, who wrote that? It was McKinley Morganfield so I listened to Muddy Waters. Even though I lived in Chicago, the home of the blues, I didn’t really get into it until I started listening to the British blues guitarists like Peter Green and John Mayall.

Is that why your own music leant more towards blues than John’s?
BP I went through different periods. In high school it was R&B, we had a horn section and a couple of singers but when John became a singer/songwriter I got rid of all my electric gear and bought an acoustic guitar. I played open mic nights in clubs. That was like a learning experience too. I got into the folkies; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk. I listened to that box set of Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax recordings. Just great stuff. Then I kind of put it all on a shelf for a while. But being on the road with John got me into playing music again. I used to do sound checks for him, it was great playing with his band. That kinda ignited a fire under me and made me want to play music again.

So how did you do that?
BP In the late 70s, I went to northern California and started a band called Whiplash and the Lawsuits! We were all over the place, rockabilly, blues just playing the club scene. Northern California was a great scene back then. You could rent a place fairly cheap. I met a lot of the Bay Area people but then in the mid-’80s, I went back to Chicago and started a band called Billy and the Bangers.

I remember them!
BP That was great stuff too, we played the clubs around Chicago. The bass player, Cary Black, had a brother working for EMI in London who asked how come I named a band Billy and the Sausages? My only regret is that if I’d worked a little harder, we could have done a lot more. We only recorded twice.

So why didn’t you?
BP Motivation. I had a day job, I just didn’t devote myself to it as much as I could have but hindsight is always 20/20. The harmonica player, a guy by the name of Johnny Rock, and me did a radio show on a low-frequency station called ‘Rock & Prine’. We had guests on, did interviews. It was kinda like ‘Wayne’s World’. I think he stole the idea from us!

What took you to Nashville?
BP John was already there, he moved there in 1980. We wanted to get our mom there so me and my mom decided to share a place. I knew Nashville as I visited John twice a year. The band had broken up so I thought hell, why not move to Nashville? I knew a lot of people there. So I ended up working for John’s manager at his record company, Oh Boy Records, a guy by the name of Al Bunetta who passed away a few years ago. He was my brother’s manager for nearly forty years. I did whatever I was called on to do; filled mail orders, I compiled a CD series called ‘Live From Mountain Stage’, a show out of Charleston, West Virginia. I worked for Al for about ten years then I got back into playing music again.

Is that when you met Michael?
BP No, that was only three years ago. That was real serendipity too as we didn’t know each other from Jack. I had moved to Florida but then my girlfriend and I decided to separate for a while. She had a house with a room to rent and lo and behold, who calls her but Michael!  She’d been to see the tribute to Charlie Rich show Michael did in town and said I think you guys would really hit it off. She knows me pretty well, she knows my taste in music. I owe a lot to her just getting me outperforming again and starting to make records. That gave me the kick in the butt I needed! We started hanging out, we were both on the same plane as far as music went. I really liked the record he did and the stuff he did before with his band the Radio Kings. We just formed a partnership, started doing some gigs.
MD We started playing a day or two after we met. I’d gone back and forth from Boston. We talked then started playing and after two hours we stopped playing. It was this instant chemistry.
BP  Exactly.
MD It was almost unspoken, I don’t normally sing so he hopped in and I played. We did John songs, old blues songs, old country songs. There was no discussion, it took us a little while but we were like, “there’s something here”.

Did that lead to the record you’ve just released, ‘A Place I Used To Know’.
MD We sat around and played. I think we did one gig that fall , 2017, then just decided to jump in with both feet, booked a studio, hired a couple of great players, and went in.

How did you select the songs, in particular, how did you choose to do the John Prine classic ‘Paradise’?
MD Kind of like consensus. We definitely wanted some original material there. Originally the only song of John’s was going to be ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’. We started the record in November 2017 and finished in July of this year!
BP A labour of love!
MD But we started work on the podcast in November 2019 when the first episode was about Paradise, Kentucky. We were in the studio finishing up the record, listening to tracks so we said we’re here, we’ve got the guitars so let’s record ‘Paradise’ to use in the podcast. There was no thought whatsoever of putting it on the record. But we knew we were going to drop one song from the record, we weren’t happy with it, so we were casting around for one more song. We did ‘Paradise’ in one take, it just went down. We listened to it and thought it’s too good to leave out.
BP It came out great.
MD It’s completely different to John’s.
BP ‘Paradise’ is a really special song. John wrote that song for our late father. “And Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County?” because we used to go to Kentucky a lot when we were young. If we had Easter break or in the summer we’d go for a couple of weeks. Both my mom and dad were from that area and they had a lot of family there. My family still has a reunion every year, but no longer in Paradise. It was a real special place, before the coal mine came in and stripped it of everything. It was like out of a Mark Twain book, a sleepy little town with one general store where guys used to hang out on the porch telling stories. A magical place with a lot of great memories. Doing that song was pretty easy for me just because it means so much. It’s about my family, it’s about my heritage.

Why didn’t you make a full album?
BP  Ha-Ha we wanted to get this thing out. We could have done a full album but it would have taken another six months.
MD And we got focussed on the podcast. But people don’t seem to be buying records a lot, they stream tracks here and there so perhaps we’ll follow up with another EP.

Sounds like a good time for the podcast. How did it come about? 
BP People through the years, close friends and my late brother John, have said I should do a blog about music. I like to talk about music. I like to talk about politics but I thought I’d better leave that out, at least right now. But I know a lot of people. We’ve done an episode with Roger Cook, who I’ve known for almost forty years, and Jerry Phillips who we both know. And we even had non-musicians like Jim Shea, who’s a great photographer and one of the few people I know who went to Woodstock and lived to tell about it.
MD He might even have more stories than you!
BP I know! The podcast is getting some good feedback, I think we’re on the right track.

Jerry Phillips as in son of Sam and Sun Studio?
BP Yes, the Phillips family are phenomenal people. I got to hang out with Sam a few times. There’s a lot of Sam in Jerry, he and his late brother Knox produced John’s album ‘Pink Cadillac’ in 1979. They are just a great family.
MD My first contact with the Phillips family was through cousin Johnny in 1994 who gave me and my band the Radio kings our first contract. We’ve worked together on and off ever since. He’s releasing my next record.
(This episode contains one of BP’s funniest stories about Sam’s response to an English band manager’s question on the secret of rock & roll).

Family features also. The first podcast episode with your cousin Wendy was a wonderful insight into the Prine Family. ‘Paradise’ felt like its soundtrack.
BP Exactly right. That was very special.
MD We recorded that last November in Central City where she lives now. It’s about eight miles from Paradise. After recording, we were going to drive into Paradise to look at the old cemeteries and take some pictures. She was like, “you can’t do that”. We asked why. She said they are all overgrown with snakes around as it’s still warm. “You guys can’t go tramping around there looking for gravestones with those snakes around”. These aren’t your garden variety snakes either!
BP There are a lot of great stories to come! People from my family and John’s early days.

You make a wonderful double-act. How’d you do it?
MD Everything we’ve done has just come together in the past three years. It’s completely unscripted.
BP It’s all done by the seat of our pants. I don’t even make notes. I might look up a few background details on people but I don’t want to sound scripted. I just want to be candid.
MD Right at the beginning our first producer Doug Hudson said let it go, record a conversation. Some are short, others go on for over two hours. Then I edit.

Can you reveal what you have lined up for future episodes?
BP We’ve got some episodes recorded and there’s a lot of people I’d like to have on. A big episode is coming up on November 16 with John’s wife Fiona. She managed John for the last five years of his career. Fiona goes back in the music business, she used to manage U2’s Dublin studio. She met John when he was recording there in the late 80s.

We haven’t talked much about music today. What do you think of today’s music business and artists?
BP I don’t listen to much new stuff. I still listen to the old stuff. It’s incredible how some of the old artists are still going. But I really like Ashley McBryde. I’ve hung out with her a couple of times and she’s really down to earth. She’s the real deal but I can’t think of many others right now.
MD I listen to all kinds of stuff. There’s a lot of great people here in Nashville but when I think about it they are all our age! People like Kevin Gordon, Rod Picott, Jon Byrd.
BP And there’s still bands doing real country music like Marty Stuart.
MD He is our age.
BP But he’s got a tight band, that’s real country music.

What’s happening where you are with COVID restrictions? Do you see any sign of a return to live music?
BP Losing my brother to this stuff was a big blow which I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around. Until they get a vaccine and the clubs can open again there’s not going to be a lot of live music. I miss gigging but I’m not going to take a chance. This stuff is a lot worse than people think and that’s scary. I don’t know what’s going to happen, especially in this country with people taking sides. “I don’t want to wear a mask. You’re taking my rights away”. It’s crazy. If wearing a mask is going to help save your life you shouldn’t even question it but a lot of people do. Ridiculous.

And finally, what are your music plans?
BP We’re going to try writing. But once it all opens up again I think you’ll see a lot of people want to get out and see live music again. Until then, at least there’s the virtual thing.

On that upbeat note, a huge thank you for your time and all the best with the podcast and writing.
BP MD Thanks for having us, We really appreciate it. (BP) We’ve got to get over there and play some shows! I have yet to get to the UK. I had a great time in Ireland!

Billy Prine’s  ‘A Place I used To Know’ is out now on Memphis International Records

Author: Lyndon Bolton

Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between

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