Released in June, ‘This Far South’, Tommy Prine’s debut, has been one of my albums of the summer. It’s been a constant soundtrack to my lazy days and long evenings. Co-produced by Gena Johnson and Ruston Kelly, the record is an honest and emotional journey that follows Prine from challenging times towards a brighter future. I’ve been immersed in those intimate songs, those deeply personal recollections and open-hearted confessionals, and I arrived at The Portland Arms full of expectation, ready to be transported into the places, times and feelings of which Tommy Prine sings. I was not to be disappointed. A superb venue that champions great artists, The Portland Arms has a good-sized performance space tucked behind the main pub, where you can get up close to the artists and the sound is excellent.
Before Prine’s set, Marc Williams, AKA Old Man Boom, provided intriguing support with his take on ‘murder-folk’ which he noted was his, “Style of music, not what I do!” The Cambridgeshire-based artist plays stirring songs that often sound upbeat but have a darker heart. Arriving on stage he was welcomed with a clap and noted that we had set a low bar as he hadn’t done anything ye and that good humour remained throughout. The slow, delicate banjo-picking of ‘A Heart Filled With Ghosts’ was a compelling start. Only ever played live once before, it set the lyrical tone and was notable for William’s soft, low vocal delivery. ‘A Love Letter to Demis Roussos’ and ‘Elim’ were significantly more upbeat, with a faster strum. A new song, ‘As I Wait’, about a relationship that works out very badly, was a highlight of the set. Starting slowly, the song built to a real crescendo. Old Man Boom had a choice of songs to finish his set and selected, ‘Island in the Sun’, “…the happier of the two.” It’s about a man dying on a desert island, which neatly sums up Williams’ narrative intent.
Tommy Prine arrived with a an easy smile and talk of eating too much Indian food just 30 minutes beforehand. His presence was affable, welcoming and close: “Small crowd, small room kind of vibe – this is going to be fun!” Preparing us for the intimate nature of his songs and performance he also informed us that “All the songs are stories and experiences from my life, things I did or that happened to me. They made me the person I am today.” And early song ‘Boyhood’ was a perfect example of Tommy as a storyteller. About growing up with his brother Jack, the song is full of little details that draw you into the memories of playful times, interwoven with clever lyrics about crossing a creek, “that was ten years wide,” and an exchange with his father who has crossed it many times, reassuring his son that he will too, “And when I’m done, you’ll teach your son how to swim it straight.” Listening to him sing these words, a powerful voice that contrasts with his delicate guitar work, it’s striking how well he writes about the passage of time and familial relationships, making his experiences universal and turning everyday childhood games into something more profound. Like the best poets, he seems to slip between these elements with an ease that takes his audience with him.
From his childhood, Tommy took us into his early twenties for the title track of his debut album, ‘This Far South’. It was a period of partying and poor life choices that meant he was, “turning into a man I didn’t want to be.” The message of the song, at the heart of the whole album, is that he needed to move towards something better and brighter and he is determined to never be this far south again. There was urgent finger-picking and a timeless vocal melody that felt both fresh and yet familiar. Almost spoken at times, the delivery was truly heartfelt and honest; this song is another fine example of Tommy Prine’s ability to make himself vulnerable in a way that draws us to his side. He told us that he called his friend Ruston Kelly over to hear the song and Kelly suggested they cut a demo, saying, “You should quit your job and become an artist.” Ruston Kelly knows a thing or two about songwriting and this was very good advice.
Prine then delivered one of the most emotionally resonant songs and performances I’ve ever seen. ‘By the Way’ is an open-hearted song about the death of his famous father, John. On record, the lyrics are powerful but to have it played right in front of you was stunning and the very reason that we love live music. Tommy was visibly moved as he sang, “By the way, people say I look just like you.” This felt utterly real and it was a privilege to be presented with such an insight. Again, it was totally disarming in his vulnerability. He lightened the mood with ‘Gandalf’, an wry ode to ‘Lord of the Rings’, and then another upbeat song in ‘Mirror and a Kitchen Sink’. While it’s a punky song on record, it’s a charming, rolling, swaying acoustic number here. He introduced the energetic song by explaining that he used to live in an apartment in Nashville, where he would pace around and think of fake people, having discussions with them and thinking of witty one-liners. Eventually, he realised that he was just arguing with himself and not getting anywhere. At the time, the only things in the room were a mirror and a kitchen sink and that became the foundation of the song.
As Ruston Kelly co-produced Prine’s album and is a friend, it was no surprise that a cover was included in the set. Kelly’s 2020 song ‘Brave’, a song about legacy and what we leave behind – perfectly in tune with Prine’s original songs, was performed with a slow, deep intensity. Prine described Kelly as one of his favourite songwriters but, with his emotional delivery, he made it his own. Next up was ‘Mysteries of Man’, delightfully performed – in fact, he almost laughed while singing his smartly-phrased lyrics. In the run up to finishing his album, Prine had written north of seventy songs. Then, one day he picked his guitar and for that moment, “I figured out I had nothing left to say.” Prine explained that he continues to write when feeling like that by picking something he can see in the room he’s in and just starting to make observations. That day, he could see two books: ‘The Prophet’ and ‘The Theory of Music’ and the resulting ideas coalesced into a song that is a regular in his live shows. The lovely tune of ‘Caught in the Wake’ began with gently finger-picked chords that grew into a more powerful strum; it featured quieter and slower moments in which Prine’s voice cracked at times with the feeling of his captivating delivery.
A re-tune and a capo later – resulting in a gorgeous, warm sound – Prine sang ‘Observations’, which had an amusing introduction. He explained, “My wife and I like to foster cats and dogs. And by that I mean my wife likes to foster cats and dogs. Usually I just get a text with a picture of a cat or dog already in the car: ‘Meet Maggie. Dog. Going to be with us three months.’ I asked her to rethink that one. It’s now been three years and Maggie sleeps with me every night.” The guitar work was delicate and fluttering and Prine smiled to himself while singing, “I’m sorry I suggested keeping Maggie in the basement.” Once again, listening to ‘Observations’, I was struck by his humour and humanity. A Tommy Prine show is really like just spending an evening sitting down with him and becoming immersed in his life: the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the joy and grief. He shares it all and it’s spellbinding.
‘I Love You always’ was written for Prine’s wife and it is totally unselfconscious and open-hearted. It builds and quietens with changes in pace and volume. It’s a special thing to write so effectively and genuinely about love. This was followed by the outstanding 2022 single ‘Ships in the Harbor’. The words are thoughtful and poetic: “It’s why I get sad when there’s ships in the harbor // ‘Cause they must be leaving soon, as they should…I’d do anything just to talk to my father // But I guess he was leaving soon, as we do // Yeah, I guess he was passing through, and I am too.” It’s a reminder that all we have, everything we love, even our own lives, are ephemeral. Again, the emotional pull of the song was irresistible, currents of loss and grief sweeping us listeners into our own harbours and thinking of the ships we’ve seen leaving. It was the sort of song, authentic and simply beautiful, that we all experience together but, for a few moments, places us into our own worlds.
Prine finished his set with the bright strum of his recent single ‘Cash Carter Hill’. A few months before the completion of the album, Prine and Ruston Kelly spent time on a writing retreat in Mother Maybelle Carter’s house and a third of the songs were written there. Kelly suggested it and John Carter Cash thought it would be a, “cool idea.” Each day, Kelly and Prine went walking up a hill in the grounds. It struck Prine that everyone has one big mountain to climb before figuring out who they are. He wrote a poem. Then, he put chords to it. The result is one of the most affecting songs on the album. Lyrically and musically, this was a beautiful song to finish on.
Throughout the show, Prine’s chatter, explanations and introductions helped make the songs more real, more vivid, more emotional. He found, repeatedly, that fine balance between sharing humour and serious trauma, which made him immensely good company for an evening. Our thanks must go to Ruston Kelly for persuading Tommy Prine to pursue a life as a songwriting troubadour because he has a great gift for drawing us into his life and musical world. Of being in a new city on the other side of the ocean, he said, “I can’t tell you what it means to me. It makes me really damn happy to be here.” This writer was pretty damn happy too and I look forward to Tommy Prine’s return to these shores. Next time he’s over here, I urge our readers to experience one of his shows.