John Prine, One Year Gone: His Family on His Legacy and Tribute Plans

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A year without John Prine is a year too desolate to measure in sheer months. But with the anniversary of the legendary musician’s April 7, 2020 death upon us, it’s a time to take stock of what was lost over the last year, not just for him and his family but the millions who’ve also lost a loved one to COVID.. It’s also a time to take stock of the 50 years of music Prine gave the world since his debut album came out in 1971, shaping nearly anyone who aspired to be a singer-songwriter in that time, whether they recognized the influence or not.

His wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, was also his manager for the last five years of his life, and their son, Jody Whelan, had long since took over the reins of the independent label Prine founded, Oh Boy Records. Together, they’ve had 12 months of attending to business — the business, that is, of keeping his artistic flame alive, with tribute events that are really just starting to ramp up — in a way that allowed them to fully celebrate Prine, the artist, even if they confess the inability to gather family during quarantine has left some unfinished business when it comes to properly mourning Prine, the man.

Variety spoke with them on the eve of the anniversary, at which point vaccinated members of the family were planning to finally gather in a bigger group than they’ve allowed themselves to up till now. The conversation touched on moments of incredulous anger, at a partly COVID-denying nation that still doesn’t entirely realize what hit it, and also laughter and joy as they remembered the delight he brought to fans, and how supported they’ve felt. There’ll be more mirth and tears to come when Prine is the subject of an epic tribute this fall, via an album and a possibly week-long celebration in Nashville.

VARIETY: No one wants to celebrate an anniversary like this, yet it feels important not to let these dates pass by unnoticed, either personally or how we mark what’s happened as a society. How would you describe what you’re feeling, coming up on one year since this happened?

FIONA WHELAN PRINE: I have a lot of thoughts and I don’t know if I’ve had enough time yet to process and really make sense of them. … Obviously Jody and I work together as business partners and we’ve had a lot of work to do, and that has helped. There has been a sense of every day being new and every day being different. And now we come to the end of the first year, and there’s not just a sadness of missing John, which I do every day, but a sadness that now we’re one year removed from when I was last with him. And the time really just does keep marching on. Time is nobody’s hostage, that’s for sure.

So I try to keep my expectations pretty even. COVID has made things very difficult for all of us, and I say that collectively, for obviously the world, and for our family; we’ve been very careful and very cognizant of all the CDC recommendations, and that’s kept us apart a lot of the time. Some of us are fully vaccinated, and some of us are on our way there, and so we hope to gather together on John’s anniversary for the first time since Christmas of 2019, which would have been the last time we were all together as a family.

JODY WHELAN: Really since the tornado hit Nashville, it seems like everything has been upside down. That was the physical act, and then once everyone saw the damage with COVID, it was this creeping dread that happened.  I remember when Adam (Schlesinger) passed away, and Joe Diffie… and although it wasn’t of COVID, Bill Withers passed away. Everyone was  isolated and apart from each other. Our offices are in Germantown in Nashville, so we were shut down from the beginning of March and still haven’t really opened them back up, because of COVID. Everything’s been topsy-turvy ever since the tornado hit. Everything seemed we were in a terrible cloud of continuing bad news, not only for our family but the whole country.We really threw ourselves into the things we had to do. Looking back on it, we put that online special [an all-star tribute to Prine] out in June, and now I have no idea how we did that.

FIONA: I know, Jody, I know!

JODY: I was there and I helped put it together, but how did we actually do that?  It’s weird — without being able to do the normal things that people can do in grieving, I look for alternatives things to do, and some of them are healthy and some of them aren’t, but throwing yourself into work is one way of ignoring things. It’s complicated for us because our work is also a lot of times centered around the person we lost.

FIONA: I’m like Jody; I threw myself into work. I threw myself into public advocacy. One of the things that I’ve learned throughout this grieving process is that everything changes except one thing: I am still who I am, who I always was. And I guess that’s a testimony to our resilience as a family, that we were able to hold onto those things that make us who we are as individuals and who we are as a family, and those things didn’t go away. In fact, some of them became amplified. We all have very strong feelings about social justice…

Fiona, you’ve certainly been a strong presence on Twitter at certain moments when things seemed to be going wrong with leadership as the crisis went on. Having your name on those statements, perhaps it was a little bit more of a slap in the face to people to be careful, or be angry. Were you thinking as you made some of those statements that, yes, you had a particularly authoritative voice in the moment?

FIONA: No, I never really thought about that. I mean, after John passed, after the first week  – which is a real blur; I’m sure that I slept. I’m sure that I had food, but I don’t remember much of those first 10 days. But I became very quickly aware that I was not alone. I was not the only woman, person, certainly in America and in the world generally, that was sitting there grieving the loss of a loved one to this virus. And like Jody alluded to, just that ominous, gut-wrenching, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and God forbid one of my children get it, or wondering how much can this virus do to us.  I became aware that I wasn’t alone, and it was really in that sort of phase that I just spoke my mind in the hope that either it would encourage people to take the virus seriously and/or to let others know who had been affected that they were very much in our hearts, too. As a family, we kept them close, and we still do.

Even for fans, it felt like we had just been with John; he’d just been out on tour, and just done a Grammy eve tribute show in L.A. and been at the ceremony. But you see some rationalization creeping in, whether it’s friendly fans or from deniers, that he had already cheated death by beating cancer twice, so maybe everyone should be glad that he had as long as he did, because he was on borrowed time already. But you knew how vivacious he still was.

FIONA: John had survived and gone on to thrive after a couple of bouts of cancer. He was very attentive to his health; we had all the best doctors there at Vanderbilt, and he never missed a doctor’s appointment. He took medicine, and he enjoyed life. And before March, there was no suggestion that John was going to be leaving us anytime soon. Yes, there was always that chance that down the road an illness might come along that would debilitate, or that would challenge us. But  that was something down the road. I didn’t think he was going to live necessarily till 90, but there was a certain longevity in his family. No, it was a brutal wrench. And it’s still difficult to think about it, honestly.

JODY: I’ll just add, I’m a pretty online person, to my detriment. So to see how every death of COVID got viewed through almost a partisan lens or a political lens was tough. At first it made me kind of angry, and I don’t know whether I became numb to it maybe I didn’t realize it was still affecting me. But I was just seeing that, for a certain segment of people, every death could be explained some other way, because people are very invested in not representing the pandemic as maybe something as serious as it was. I get that there’s a political angle to that, and it doesn’t surprise or shock me, but when it hits you that close to home, and to see how callous people can be… and some people don’t realize they’re being that callous, but they’re just so invested in  a political narrative.

I think I was able to let it wash over me. But there was some pretty out-there stuff that was part of QAnon, for instance, and just like the first time I came across that was like, “Oh, God.” You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. And John was not a major celebrity, but certainly well enough known that there’s enough of that stuff online. It was sort of dismaying to see how quickly it got spun into, kind of like my mom alluded to, like, “Well, his health wasn’t the best, so COVID’s really not that serious, if you’re someone that’s had health (issues). These people were on their way out anyway.” And that’s just not the case.

FIONA: I don’t go down too many of the rabbit holes that have that negativity, and I don’t have any time to read about QAnon anyway, because I’m busy, but that’s just simply not factual, and it’s not compassionate. It doesn’t reflect reality. And I feel, rightly or wrongly, my sense of reality and compassion is connected to those who understand how devastating this virus has been, not just for me and for my family, but for this entire country. I mean, it’s coming up on 600,000 people killed from a virus, and they’re saying now that that second wave didn’t have to happen. You can hear from both of us: there’s frustration and there’s anger and there’s disappointment and there’s politics… But at the end of the day, none of that will take John back. And that’s really what I’m charged with, more than anything, is to learn to accept that a little bit more every day, and to embrace what’s new in my life now.

Even among people who fully accepted what COVID meant, you see a rush to get over it now, and get back to business as usual. Awards shows acknowledge it at the top of the show just as something we’re ready to move on from now, with nothing so solemn as a moment of silence. Maybe that’s one reason to have one-year commemorations of certain things, to remind us it’s not really all over.

FIONA: Absolutely, it’s not. Without segueway-ing too far off, one of the things that our society will pay a price for, for a long, long time, will be the children that missed out on school, or some (that missed out) on nutrition and care. I think there’s a whole section of society that has been neglected and left behind throughout this. The new administration looks like they may make some inroads in trying to mediate that. But that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night. It’s not my grandchildren, whom I know are loved and cared for — albeit that my son and his wife have run themselves ragged from every corner of their house, trying to find a quiet spot for Zoom calls, and Jody runs a really busy business. But those are not the children I’m worried about. I’m worried about the ones who don’t have the kind of support they need because their parents don’t have the kind of support they need. That’s a whole other story, but still a part of the story.

John Prine, Fiona Whelan Prine and Jody Whelan
Courtesy Oh Boy Records

Can you talk about any of the artists who’ve been most supportive? Clearly when you’re doing like a tribute show, like you did online in June, with an artist of John’s stature and the friends he had, it’s not going to be trouble to get people to sign up. But are any that stand out for how they have really tried to keep his legacy going, or in other ways?

JODY: I think before we get into any names, just John’s fan base, they wanted to help and support in any way they could, from all the things I saw online of other people sharing the songs and music, to buying every T-shirt ever made. [Laughs.] Because people didn’t know what to do, and there was this outpouring from all over the world. In the music community… I think everyone knows how close John was with Bonnie Raitt and Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves and Iris DeMent and the folks that he’s played with for years. But I think what was really  surprising, at least to me, was to see a younger generation, whether it’s Robin (Pecknold) from Fleet Foxes or Phoebe Bridgers or Big Thief — folks that are younger than me, you know? — Kurt Vile and a whole other generation of folks that maybe we didn’t know their attachment was so strong. it’s almost like a fool’s errand to single anyone out, because we’ve had so much support. I mean, Sturgill (Simpson), Brandi (Carlile)… . I don’t think anyone has ever said no to anything we asked in the last year. Everyone wanted to help. and folks have reached out without being asked.

You know, it’s strange, because there’s two parts, right? The person in our family, our patriarch, but then it’s also the artist. We’ve been able to, in some ways, celebrate him more as an artist than as a person, because we can’t get together and do the sort of normal things. But  his artistry and the songs have been held up in a way that I know he would get a kick out of. That part is cool, because I know that he always loved it when people covered his songs, and so he is somewhere smiling down at it all.

FIONA: Like Jody said, I don’t know if we should even name one, because you’re always going to leave someone out. But everybody has just been so supportive — and sincere. When I get messages, and still do —  I mean, literally, today, I get messages from people who just say, “I’m still heartbroken over John.” And I completely believe them, because he represented something to people about what it was to be an American. From the first night I met him, I called him “Mr. America.” There was just something holy and righteous about John in terms of what he represented as an American.

But you asked about people who’ve supported us. I have had the benefit of knowing obviously a lot of people in the industry. I traveled with John, and many artists that opened and played with him and collaborated with him, I got to know on that sort of on-the-road, in-the-studio,  backstage kind of basis. But some of them have really stepped up for me, just sending a text or making a phone call or sending me flowers. It’s just really sweet. I’m thinking about Kacey Musgraves in particular, who has just been just a very sweet and supportive presence in my life, even though I haven’t seen her for over a year. And Brandi Carlile and her wife, Catherine, the same. Some relationships have deepened and have grown, even though we don’t see each other.

There are no silver linings in his death, but you had what might have felt like a less frustrating experience than many families of COVID patients did, in that you got to be with him at the end.

FIONA: The last time I spoke with him was at the hospital door, because the next time I saw him, he was on a ventilator and he was unconscious. But I did spend 17 hours with him, up until he passed… I honestly do carry those people in my heart that were not able to say goodbye. I know what it’s like to sit on your sofa at home, bolt upright, staring at your cell phone, wondering if it’s going to ring again and what the news is going to be. COVID, especially in those early months, was such an unknown. Doctors honestly didn’t know. I mean, there was a great sense when I would talk to the doctors that they were just trying everything, throwing whatever they could at it. And it was agonizing and confusing and difficult. And I think there are a lot of stories — not just ours — a lot of stories that need to be heard, so that people can truly express what this virus has done to our country.

Let’s talk about the last five years he had in his career, with you as his manager and Jody as his label head and one final, triumphant, award-winning album and bigger and more enthusiastic audiences on tour. He was more popular and his profile was higher than it’d ever been, as he came into his early 70s. That’s not something you could honesty say of anyone else nearly 50 years into a career, maybe. 

FIONA: Getting that opportunity to be on the road with John for the last five years was truly a gift that I didn’t know I wanted or needed, and it happened just because of circumstances. And so I’m so grateful I got that opportunity, and I got to see that, side stage, every single night, and scan the audience. I love people-watching, anyway. You would see granddads, men with sons and the son with two small children, or you’d see a family in a row of maybe eight seats all along and it would span anywhere from baby to 80. It was quite remarkable. I would often see couples, and both of them tearing up. She would put her head on her husband’s shoulder, and I would always have a little narrative in my own head. I’d be thinking, I wonder if maybe she hadn’t done that enough recently, or something, I mean, he had a way of connecting with people and getting right into the reason and the matter of being. And it was the same songs (as in past days), you know? John continued to write, obviously, and his last record was his most successful record and has just as beautiful songs as his first record. But it was a lot of those old songs where people knew every word and would mouth and sometimes sing along. And there was just a reverence for him. Because who John was on stage was really the essence of who he was as a man, truly. .

What people related to about him may not have been the same for everybody. It’s easy to think that some really related to the humor most of all, and others most to the emotion and the heart of it, and some were surely drawn to the literacy and craftsmanship. 

FIONA: Well, most every song has an element of all of that. So I think that speaks to how the audience was as one watching John, because whether you were taking your solace from how he could speak from the heart, or you were being entertained because of his humor, or you were inspired by his literary talents, it was all there in one package. In one room on one night, one 90-minute show, you got the full span of John Prine.

JODY: My favorite quote, I think out of all the great quotes [about Prine], was from Ted Kooser [the U.S poet laureate], who said, “He takes ordinary people and builds monuments to them.” And that to me was it. He wasn’t writing about tortured artists or grandiose figures. He was really interested in people, and just regular people — who could also do extraordinary things or terrible things or beautiful things.

FIONA: Most of his characters got names. I mean, we could probably have a little book of baby names from John Prine songs. [Laughs.] When you think about it, you have Donald, you have Lydia — you say those names and if you know John’s music, it immediately conjures (something) up. Because he tells you who these people are — what they look like, what they feel, where they are in life, their challenges, their joys, their dreams. “Sam Stone,” same thing. Even “Dear Abby.”

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John Prine and Jody Whelan
Joshua Britt

You’ve got a tribute album in the works. What can you say about it now?

JODY: You know, Oh Boy in 2010 released a tribute volume called “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows” that was at the time up-and-comers in that kind of folk/roots/Americana world. Some of them have gone on to become much bigger, but it was  Conor Oberst and the Avetts and Justin Vernon from Bon Iver and Old Crow Medicine Show and Drive-by Truckers. For years we were planning on releasing a second volume, and it was just one of those projects that always got put on the back burner. But we’re releasing Volume 2 of “Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows” in the fall. And whereas that first volume was sort of a younger generation that admired John’s work but maybe hadn’t played shows with him, this next one will be folks that were kind of closer to his circle. We’ll be announcing more of it to come, but it is going to come out in the fall. And when it comes out, we’re planning on having  a week of events in Nashville to celebrate John. There will be an in-person aspect, with the caveat that we want to make sure that it’s safe, and some of it’s going to be online, to have accessible to as many people as possible. We’re going to have a fun tribute record, but we also also take a week to —if it’s safe — all come together to celebrate him.