By Alla Drokina
It was the spring of '73 on the University of Wisconsin-Madison's verdant campus, when a John Prine album surreptitiously made its way into Bruce Rits Gilbert's record collection in his dorm. It must have been left behind in exchange for another album from a fellow student, Gilbert says.
By the fall of '73, Gilbert had purchased three of American country folk singer and songwriter John Prine's albums. Cue decades later and Gilbert remains a fervent and steadfast fan.
Gilbert's book, John Prine One Song at a Time, chronicles Prine's seminal works and pays homage to his talents. It all began when amid the chaos of the pandemic and the unfortunate news of Prine's passing in April, Gilbert congregated with family and friends through virtual screens to revisit and replay Prine's works.
The book is a result of Gilbert's research into Prine's music and, in a way, feels like one adoring fan's love letter and homage to the talents of a musical pioneer.
John Prine One Song at a Time is currently slated for release March 19, 2021 (but copies are currently available through BookBaby's BookShop).
I understand that this all kind of started with the pandemic hitting and the Zoom gatherings celebrating John Prine. Can you tell me a little more about these Zoom gatherings you had?
In a way, this is a little bit of a Covid story. John Prine died on April 7 of last year from Covid. When he died, I think for a lot of us who are John Prine fans, it felt like we lost a friend, a dear friend.
My first instinct was to start listening to John Prine records from front to back. Then I decided it would be more meaningful to do it with other people. And this was obviously during Covid, so I gathered my three daughters and four of my nephews and two of my brothers-in-law and a couple other guys, all of whom are John Prine fans of varying degree.
I asked if they wanted to do something called a John Prine album club. We got on Zoom every Thursday night. During the week, our homework was to listen to a John Prine album. Then we came together on Thursday nights and just started talking about him, talking about that particular record and anything else that came up that was related to John Prine.
A couple of us, we'd grab our guitars and play some John Prine songs from that week's album. And after a couple of weeks, it became clear that I was sort of the teacher, because I knew a whole lot more about John Prine than anyone else on Zoom, and they were kind of the students.
So I started doing research about each of the records, all the songs, trying to get little details and tidbits, and that's what kind of led me to ultimately decide to write this book.
Have you written anything before or was this the first foray into writing?
I've written a lot. In my previous life as a lawyer I've written articles, but nothing like this. This is my first foray, certainly, into writing a book.
Writing something like this was very different, but I guess I'm old enough and, in a certain way, naive enough that I thought I could do it. So I sat down and did it.
In fact, I mostly did it right here where I'm sitting in this house in Montauk, New York.
Did anything surprise you about John Prine in your quest for more research into his life and his music?
I learned a lot of things. I knew the songs, but, for example, I hadn't really paid attention to who the producers were of his records. When I realized who they were, it became really clear why some records were better than others and why some sounds were different than others.
And it really became clear that when he used different producers the sound of his music was vastly different. And also [I learned] just dozens of little tidbits that I had no idea about.
For example, John Sebastian, from the group the Lovin' Spoonful - they were a very popular group into the 1960s and 70s - he was a harmonica player on some John Prine songs, and he also played harmonica with other famous singers including Dolly Parton.
There were tidbits like that all over the place that I learned week by week as I was researching and writing the book.
In the book, do you dissect and analyze his albums and do you also dive into his personal life?
This is not a biography. I never meant it to be a biography ... I go album by album and song by song. I discuss each of the songs in varying degrees of detail. Some are a short synopsis of the song and some are more detailed information about the lyrics or about who he co-wrote the song with and who played on the song with him.
I include some interviews that I had found with him that discuss what the song was about. Sometimes I give my own thoughts about what the song was about ...
On the whole, it's sort of a guide to John Prine music. But it gets in a little deeper than that, and in discussing his music, you'll find out about John Prine. So, although it's not a biography, if you read the book, I think you'll have a pretty good sense of who John Prine was in large part because his music tells an awfully complete - and compelling story.
There's a good quote about country music that was originally attributed to a country music hall-of-famer named Harlan Howard from way back in the day, saying a good country song is composed of three chords and the truth.
I think that's very applicable to John Prine, because he often talked about how he only played three chords on the guitar. He actually, of course, played many more than that, but many of his songs are three chord infectious melodies and the truth - with lyrics that are incredibly insightful, sometimes funny and sometimes political.
They touched on tough topics, but he did it remarkably well. It was not just his melodies, but his lyrics are what really bring a lot of people in and have a lot of people talking about him.
And I also should note that John Prine's music inspired me to become a late-to-life singer-songwriter. And our group, called Boo Rits & The Missing Years, just released a new song called "One Song at a Time (Listening to John Prine)," which is a companion song to the book.
For more information on Bruce Rits Gilbert or One Song at a Time, please visit: BruceRitsGilbert.com.
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