The folk music world lost one of its most towering giants in 2020. John Prine expertly combined razor-sharp, often humorous wit with a charming, down-home sound. His effect on modern Americana music was far-reaching — his songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Bette Midler, Loretta Lynn, and countless others, and his influence is seen in artists such as Jason Isbell, Kasey Musgraves, Brandi Carlile, and more.
Prine headlined the very first Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 1976, and went on to headline three more times over the years, the last time being in 2018, so it was fitting that last Sunday, the 44th Folk Festival added a special tribute night honoring him. A stellar line-up of some of Michigan’s best folk talent shared high praise, sweet stories, and fantastic covers of his songs.
Full disclosure: as a musician myself, I’ve had the honor to share the stage with many of these wonderful musicians and am proud to call them my friends, so journalistic objectivity may not always be possible.
The War and Treaty’s Michael and Tanya Trotter started off the evening with “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, blending gorgeous harmonies with tasteful piano. Matt Watroba and Robert Jones followed with a delightful take on the whimsical “Whistle and Fish”. Erin Zindle and Alex Cross’ high-energy “Long Monday” was woven through with Zindle’s fiery fiddling. Joshua Davis and May Erlewine charmed with a teasing rendition of “In Spite of Ourselves”, which Prine recorded as a duet with Iris Dement. Jill Jack served up a poignant “I Remember Everything”, and The Accidentals performed a singular version of “Angel From Montgomery” arguably Prine’s most popular song.
The RFD Boys shared a sweet story about getting to play on the Folk Festival Stage with Prine in 2007, and talking with him at the Pretzel Bell many years earlier, before launching into their lively bluegrass treatment of the toe-tapping, comic “Frying Pan”. Dick Siegel’s “Illegal Smile” struck just the right balance between silly and sweet, and Chris Buhalis played a tender and melancholy “Far From Me” in front of the beautiful backdrop of the empty Old Town Tavern. Dave Boutette and Kristi Davis shared infectious joy with “Boundless Love”, and May Erlewine tugged at our heartstrings with “Hello In There”.
Annie and Rod Capps laid down a rocking groove with “The Glory of True Love”, while also giving us an adorable picture of exactly the kind of love they were singing about, and Al Bettis and his band jazzed it up with a laid-back, soulful version of “Summer’s End”. A head-bopping (or full-blown ‘get-up-and-dance’) rendition of “Spanish Pipedream” was next, courtesy of Seth Bernard, and the Michigan Rattlers fittingly closed out the night with a driving and passionate “All The Best”.
Any artist would be lucky to have such a fantastic group of musicians pay them homage, and of course there aren’t many more deserving than Prine. But what made the night special was that it felt like each artist was deeply honored to be able to give thanks by singing Prine’s immortal songs.
The John Prine tribute, as well as the 44th Ann Arbor Folk Festival, will be available to view until February 8. Tickets can be purchased until February 7 at The Ark’s Website.