John Prine: Shaped & Loved By The Opry

Chris Hollo / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC.
– Prine Plays
The late, great John Prine plays the Opry.

John Prine, who succumbed to COVID-19 in April, had the Opry in his DNA. The Grammy Hall of Famer, son of a tool-and-die maker and a housewife from Kentucky, heard the Opry as his father listened to WSM-AM’s weekly broadcasts. But even before he was born, Prine’s affection for the Opry was sown.

Driving back to Chicago from visiting family, Prine’s father had an idea. It was Saturday night: why not go to the Ryman Auditorium for the show? Never mind his very pregnant wife, or the fact they had no tickets.

Fiona Prine, the songwriting icon’s wife and manager, remembers the story.  “They stopped, because his father listened every week. He and Verna figured they were right there.

“They walked up, and the show was sold out, So his father starts talking to the ticket-taker, about how they’d driven down from Chicago, and his wife so was pregnant, how they just loved the Opry so much. They stood there a minute, kept talking, and the man at the door waved them in!

“So, there was Johnny, in utero, at the Grand Ole Opry!”

Like a lot of factory workers lured North from places like Kentucky, the Opry was a touchstone to home. Prine himself spoke of his father “always thinking when he was done, he was taking the family back to Kentucky.”

So powerful was the Opry’s extension of their roots, like many families, it was a Saturday night ritual, a sonic homecoming wherever you listened. Fiona says, “It was the sacrosanct hour when the Opry was coming on. His Dad was in the kitchen, radio facing North. That was so entrenched in all of them. That’s where John heard everybody from Hank Williams to Ernest Tubb to Ray Price, Hazel Dickens. The way he loved duets, all that goes back to the Opry.”

The Opry also set the bar for the youngster learning to play guitar from his older brother. Fiona remembers, “He didn’t tell a lot of people he wrote songs, but John sang his Dad a song from his first yet to be recorded album. His Dad liked it well enough, but requested he sing a Hank Williams song.”

While his father wouldn’t live to see John Prine be released, John was able to play him the reel-to-reel reference tapes. As Prinie told Nashvilllle’s Contributor, “I’d written ‘Paradise’ for my father, as one of those Hank Williams country songs, to remind him of home.”

Fiona knows the story. “His father left the room, and John thought, ‘Oh, shoot! I’ve blown it.’ When the music stopped, his father came back in the room. ‘Hey, Dad, is everything okay?’ His father said, ‘I wanted to pretend I was listening to the radio.’”

That imprint of the Opry runs deep and endures. 

As Fiona says now, “The Opry as an institution John regarded as an important piece of America. It was his music education, coming out of the radio and moving here in the ‘80s, being around the Opry and the Ryman. When he signed Kelsey (Waldon, to Oh Boy!), he wanted to announce it from the stage of the Opry. He loved to go out and play when they had regular shows, and just be a part of it.

“John was married to the whole ethos of that. He broke his own records when he played there, and it was the only place I could get him to go to shows. We went to see Bonnie (Raitt) at the Opryhouse, and our last show at the Ryman was Joan Baez.”

How family played into all of it was as important to Prine as tradition. Fiona recalls her own best Opry memory: “I’m not known as a singer, but getting up with John the week before our wedding, and being so aware of the Circle. That feeling! ‘This is America.’ There’s nothing more American than standing next to John Prine in that circle at the Ryman.

“I don’t know that there’s anyone who’s more the American Dream: his kindness, his idiosyncrasies, the way he loved what his country stood for, what things like the Opry meant. And it ran deep.

“Hank Williams’ Luke The Drifter… the spoken word thing. John learned it by heart. He used to do for me. He used to do it for his father. That came from the Opry.”

Pausing, the smile in her voice is audible. “He loved and appreciated that he was made to feel so welcome at both the Opry and the Ryman, from the moment he got out of the car, the ticket takers, the folks just working, they all knew him – and they all said hello.”