Fiona Whelan Prine: Love & Live Define Manager/Activist’s Mission


Long before Fiona Whelan arrived in America, she was shaping an intersection of music, consciousness and care. The founder of the Hello in There Foundation, president of John Prine’s Oh Boy Records and National Council on the Arts member was running U2’s seminal Windmill Lane when iconoclastic producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement suggested Prine visit the studio during a trip to Dublin.

Like-minded, their compassion towards basic humanity saw their transatlantic romance become an inspiring coalition. Whelan Prine was a force. When Al Bunetta, the multiple Grammy-winner’s manager, died suddenly, she stepped into management and label roles. Harnessing their desire to make the world a better place, the Prines created events that raised over $3 million for Thistle Farms, dedicated to helping women escape, recover and heal from trafficking, prostitution, addiction and poverty.

When the Americana legend died from COVID, Whelan Prine doubled down – especially in the live space – to use music to build community, raise funds and resources via the Hello In There Foundation established in 2021. Grief for the dark-haired woman was fuel. Taking inspiration from the fly-away All The Best Fest, she and her team created last fall’s six-day You Got Gold celebration in Nashville , Oh Boy Goes To Europe and Oh Boy Road Show, as well as seeing son Tommy emerging as a singer/songwriter.

POLLSTAR: Being on his own label, live was always critical for John and Oh Boy. You’ve continued that thinking.
FIONA PRINE: After we took over the label, the first thing was the All The Best Fest in the Dominican Republic with Sixthman. Because Oh Boy is independent and very much about the artists, those live events – especially with other artists – were a two-for-one. Being singer/songwriter-focused, we were in it for the long haul for all the artists. Everything amplified everything else; as an independent label, we’re small and can’t make the noise of the majors, but we can put the spotlight on these songwriter/artists.

John always had admirers, even if he didn’t use them to amplify himself.
The germ was set with that first Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows compilation. Version two was last year, and it dovetails on the events we’ve been doing. It wasn’t about money-making, but putting a spotlight on the artists and the label.

People don’t realize how hard truly being independent is.
We carry all our own overhead, all the staff and physical expenses. Then we hire in the support services. That’s all on us, but between Jody (Whelan), Eileen Tilson, Collin Fidler and Sophie Baldwin, we do it. We couldn’t do what we do without the Americana and alt-country communities. With the agents, promoters, venues, as well as the managers and artists, we’re in this together.

You Got Gold hit the Ryman, Country Music Hall of Fame, Brooklyn Bowl, City Winery, Grimeys, the Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge, Parnassus Books, and so much more! Oh Boy Goes To Europe took Kelsey Waldron, Arlo McKinley and Emily Scott Robinson to Hamburg, Amsterdam, Manchester, multiple nights in London, Glasgow and Dublin.
Coming out of COVID, our artists especially rely on the road. That’s how they make their living, selling T-shirts and touring. We wanted to give them the chance to do something that’s too expensive to do on their own. To watch these artists, who’d never really worked together before – who can all write a song, but come at life from very different places, come together the way they did?! You could see where the audience was. It was a mix of Oh Boy fans, John Prine fans, the family and our connection to Ireland, plus all these young people who came for the great music. You Got Gold was created as a vehicle for (John’s) fans to come together with their grief. Not long after George Floyd was murdered, I’d never felt so alone; to not have that kind soul to lean on, I really missed that amazing human being who gave a damn about people. His family and friends knew his kindness, so this seemed a way of collecting the grief and turning it into help for others.

Six days!
What made this unique: it was founded as a direct reaction to losing John… The biggest net (of anything we’ve done) was You Got Gold, because it went straight to the foundation! We believe in paying people for their time and their art, but we recognize you have to keep up the fundraising, because the need never stops. We wanted something recurring, because of uncertainty and inflation.

And there’s Tommy.
We always knew he had guitar skills, because there were guitars all over the house. But it’s kind of surreal: put him in the car, and he drove himself everywhere for a year. That live piece is so pivotal – for financial independence, but also to figure out what he wanted. It’s been very organic. … he’s gone out and proved himself in his own way.

He’s a good writer.
One of the biggest accolades was when CBS in their pre-Grammy show asked Luke Combs, “What are you listening to?” He said, “Tommy Prine wrote the most beautiful song about when his father died …”

That must just …
I think about the early ’70s when John was starting out. He’d tell me it was hell: He got ulcers, was drinking too much beer, his first marriage ended… and Tommy’s out there, Florida, the West Coast, selling his own merch. He just sold out the second night of a four-week residency at the Basement, very organic; the DSPs, Spotify, Amazon were all there. This record, coming this spring, is very reflective of his journey through his 20s, and that includes losing his father. Since I managed John towards the end of his career, seeing a younger Prine at the beginning of his career is full circle. I get a little wistful.