Straight from the launch of his long-awaited debut album This Far South, Tommy Prine makes it clear that he intends to make music his own way, and not to appease his father’s fans with notions of the mold he should fit into.
On the song ‘Elohim’, Tommy - the son of John Prine - deconstructs the idea of destiny or fate, having witnessed the loss of his father and several friends in recent years, leaving him with more questions than answers. These shadows loom throughout the album, manifesting themselves again on songs about mental health and substance abuse alongside odes to his father.
However, rather than let the darkness consume him, Prine instead uses it to discover and feel his emotions, creating hopeful tales of redemption in the process.
After feeling lost well into his twenties, Prine first began navigating to a music career following an impromptu performance at his father’s All the Best Fest in November 2019, that his wife Savannah volunteered him for after a spot became open. The hastily thrown together show helped to make him more comfortable in front of an audience and introduced him to fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly. The two quickly became friends, leading to Kelly co-producing and co-writing several songs on This Far South.
From his Nashville home, we spoke with Prine about the people in his inner circle who’ve helped encourage his musical pursuits, walking alongside his father’s shadow rather than within it, the healing process of writing This Far South and more.
This Far South revolves around your experience with healing in its many forms. How has turning memories into song helped in the healing process?
A lot of the perspective I have on this album is taking check of my life and looking back on things I’ve already experienced, to figure out where I went wrong and what those decisions did to me. You can get nostalgic for the past before those things happened, or to when you were a kid and didn’t have to make adult decisions. In that sense This Far South is almost like one big journal entry of me explaining why I am the way I am.
Music has really been a savior to me. It’s been a way to divert all of the energy I have and process it from multi-faceted emotions into a diluted couple minute long song that forces me to be as honest as possible about myself. Instead of a two hour TED Talk of me explaining my life, this album is a 36 minute not wasting any words version of my life that introduces myself to the world.
How was your impromptu performance at All the Best Fest a turning point for you and your musical career?
That show was when I caught the bug. I had such a good time playing those songs, nervous as I was. Walking off the stage after had me feeling the most like me that I’ve felt in my entire life. I’d never felt more comfortable in my own skin, thanks to adrenaline and the relief of finally sharing these songs I’d kept so close to me for so long. Looking back, it was definitely a catalyst for what has happened over the last couple of years.
One of your biggest supporters is your wife, Savannah. What has her encouragement meant to you, and why did you try to capture that feeling on ‘I Love You, Always’?
She’s always had a lot of foresight in her life. Even as a child her dad would call her his little Buddha. She’s got this intrinsic understanding of the world and the people around her. Honestly, I think she knew something about me that I didn’t at the time. She’s always been encouraging of me trying to find myself, so much so that the first two years of our relationship I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It’s wild looking back because our lives have changed so much since then. It’s like she knew all along that this was the right road to take. I’m not sure I would’ve been an artist if I hadn’t met her. She was, and still is, an integral part of who I am, who I became and who I’ll continue to be.
Ending the album on ‘I Love You, Always’ is a way for me to put a wrap on all the songs about my past by closing things out with the present. It’s catching the listeners up to where I am now as a married man and ending things on a hopeful note.
All the Best Fest is also the foundation of your friendship and musical partnership with Ruston Kelly. What’s his significance in bringing this album to life?
We’d met once before, but it was like 2015 smoking cigarettes outside The Basement East at 2 a.m. Upon reconnecting he, Savannah and I started forming a very tight friendship. He has been of incredible importance throughout this process. Having someone that I already loved and respected as a person and songwriter show me validation, provide a space to play, offer helpful criticism, write with and encourage me has been huge. He’s another person who I don’t see myself being who I am today without.
While he’s been an incredible resource for me in terms of navigating ups and downs of the road and making music, he’s also been the best friend that anyone could ask for as I dealt with losing my dad and starting this insane new job. I look forward to seeing what else we create together in the future.
On ‘Reach the Sun’ you sing about pre-show panic attacks you frequently experienced in the past. Have you learned any tricks for overcoming them?
The remedy to that is just repetition. After a while, certain things just begin to feel more comfortable, like being in front of people or talking into the mic between songs. I still get the jitters and my energies spiking all over the place before a show, but now instead of getting nervous about it I’m apprehensive and ready to get out there. It’s about feeling the excitement building and allowing it all to culminate at that night’s show, whereas there've been moments doing writer’s rounds the last couple of years where I felt straight up nervous because I wasn’t comfortable with how I would perform.
If you do the same thing enough times you’re gonna get into a groove. At the same time, I’ll never be perfect, I’m gonna be learning and getting better the rest of my life. Once you’re able to be comfortable with the two you can actually have a lot of fun.
Is being comfortable in your own skin and not walking in anyone else’s shadow also what you’re singing about on ‘Cash Carter Hill’?
That song comes from a poem I wrote. It’s my answer to the question of ‘how do you feel walking in your dad’s shadow?’ which is, a) I don’t see it that way, and b) you can’t live life under a shadow. You can’t choose your own path under a shadow because you can’t see anything. You have to be able to lift your head up, see what’s around you and realize that everything that happens to you is going to be a product of the choices that you make. When you can understand that is when you’re at your freest. Maybe some things are all said and done and other things aren’t. The only way you can figure that out for sure though is when you take control of your own life.
To record it, Ruston and I went and spent four nights at the Carter family’s compound, that used to be the home of Mother Maybelle Carter. The first morning we were there Ruston and I walked up this big hill in the backyard before finding our own spots at the top to chill and get ready for the day. It was there that I wrote the poem. I wasn’t planning to turn it into a song until he mentioned that I should throw some chords together to see how it worked. Eventually what came out is what you hear on the album, which is something I’m really proud of.
You sing about digging yourself out of rock bottom on the album’s title track ‘This Far South’. Do you have any affirmations or advice you give yourself in those moments to get back up?
After everything I’ve gone through recently I understand that things aren’t always going to be perfect. Sometimes there’s going to be horrible shit that happens, it’s almost a guarantee. Suffering is part of the human experience. A part of it is that you’ve been down there before and you made it to here, so there’s no reason why you can’t do it again.
It reminds me of the saying ‘this too shall pass’ and understanding that as overwhelming as being in the moment of something horrible is, there was a time before it when everything was ok and that there’s going to be a time in the future where everything is ok as well. You’ve just got to stick with it.
I also think that suffering in and of itself is what builds community and the human experience. When you reach the other side of the darkness is when you’re able to open your heart up enough to hear other people’s stories, or to feel comfortable sharing yours.
While you can look at it as a ‘we’re all doomed’ thing, I tend to see it more as a sign that we’re not the only ones out there, because sometimes it's really easy to be isolated and consumed in your own little version of the world. If or when you realize that these things have all happened to other people with a million different outcomes, you have an opportunity to turn this suffering into whatever you want it to be. I think that’s one of the most powerful things that any of us can have.
Tommy Prine's debut album, This Far South, is out on June 23 via Thirty Tigers.