Written by Jane Roser
Located in Vienna, Virginia, approximately 16 miles from Washington DC, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is the only national park in America dedicated to the performing arts. The Filene Center, where Friday’s show was being held, is also partially outdoors, so when dicey weather alerts started blowing up my phone, I held my breath the rain would just hang tight.
Country music darling Margo Price opened with her signature powerhouse vocals and witty lyrics, keeping the audience enthralled and captivated. She could be described as a mix of a little Dolly, Emmylou, and Tammy with her own grit and substance.
Rocking a cotton voile off-the-shoulder dress and acoustic guitar sans capo, Price exuded the confidence and stage presence of an old pro opening the show with “Don’t Say It” with her five-piece band and belting one of my favorite lyrics: “If you drink all night, you’ll be thirsty all day/Don’t say you love me when you treat me this way.”
Price is one of Nashville’s most talked about new artists (although she actually isn’t “new,” Price has been paying her dues in the music scene for years) and was recently nominated for the Americana Music Association’s 2018 artist, album and song of the year awards. She’s been keeping busy performing at music festivals and late night TV shows in support of her sophomore album, All American Made.
Price performed songs from All American Made and her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, including “Do Right By Me,” “Tennessee Song,” “Wild Women,” and “Hands of Time.” She introduced the electric “Four Years of Chances” touting, “this one goes out to anyone going through a breakup or divorce,” then went straight into her hit “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” which she performed on Saturday Night Live in 2016. Price threw red roses to the audience after her set, while many gave her a much-deserved standing ovation.
For over 50 years, the outlaw country musician, John Prine, has had a flourishing career; from multiple album releases to earning two Grammy Awards and numerous artists covering his beloved songs, including the likes of Johnny Cash, John Denver, Carly Simon and Bonnie Raitt. Prine’s new album, The Tree of Forgiveness, is his first in thirteen years featuring original material.
Prine and his four-piece band opened his set with his hit song “Six O’Clock News” with a photographic backdrop of an old post office whose signs read: “Paradise, KY” and “Green River.”
This my second time seeing Prine live and I’m always in awe watching this legendary songwriter perform. Several surgeries have left his voice a bit creaky, but no one cares. He could sing through all of the A’s in a phone book and people would still show up. He’s the real deal, so much that Rolling Stone recently named him the “Mark Twain of American Songwriting.”
“It’s my 18th time playing Wolf Trap,” Prine began. “I was only three the first time we played here,” Prine joked, then transitioned into one of his new tunes, “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door.”
“Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrows)” is the title track of Prine’s fifth album whose first verse was inspired by a horrific train accident Prine came upon as a child: “I heard sirens on the train track howl naked gettin’ neutered/an altar boy’s been hit by a local commuter/Just from walking with his back turned to the train that was coming so slow.”
“This is an old, old song, so get out your dustpan,” says Prine. “I wrote it in 1968. It was a political song then and now it’s a mega-political song. I’m gonna keep singing it until I get it right.” I had a feeling this next song would be “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” and yep, the quintessential (and slightly cheeky) anti-Vietnam War song about misguided patriotism: “Your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore/We’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war/Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for/And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore” At the end Prine repeated the lyric, “I stuck one on my wife’s forehead,” then added, “it’s still there, too.”
The backdrop changed to the sun shining through a beautifully twisted tree. A blood red light bathed over the photograph while Prine sang “Caravan of Fools”, a lovely, quiet and haunting song punctuated with a violin.
I admit I’ve considered requesting the rollicking “Please Don’t Bury Me” from Prine’s 1973 album “Sweet Revenge”, to be played at my funeral, but I think my family would be mortified (except my sister who’d find it morbidly amusing): “Please don’t bury me down in that cold, cold ground/No, I’d rather have ’em cut me up and pass me all around/Throw my brain in a hurricane and the blind can have my eyes/And the deaf can take both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.” The audience had a blast with that one causing Prine to chuckle afterwards and say,”alright, so you know that one, huh?”
“I go fishing at least once a year and we take a case of beer in case of an emergency. We’d go out to the lake and drift and if the fish ain’t biting, we just tell bullshit stories all day. My friend told me this story about how he and his buddies, growing up in Nebraska, would go down to this roller rink where the egg farmers would drop off their daughters when they came to town. They called Thursday nights “egg and daughter night”. I said that’s too good of a story to pass up, so I’m gonna write a song about it. My buddy later heard it and said, “I’m not from Lincoln, I’m from Norfolk, Nebraska.” Well, it was too late to change it and [the lyric] rhymes with Lincoln, anyway.” Prine did some fantastic scatting half-way through “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone).”
Several minutes passed while Prine had another guitar brought out-the guitar he was going to use had some tuning issues. “I bet you’re wondering why the next song is taking so long,” he said, “it just is. This is a song about my grandfather on my dad’s side, Grandpa Prine.” Prine paid homage to his grandfather with his classic, “Grandpa Was A Carpenter”, then sang one the saddest songs ever written, “Hello In There”, which I first heard in the 1980s when Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant covered it. Prine has said he performs the gut-wrenching song about ageing and loneliness at every show noting that, “nothing in it wears on me.” The lyrics are so relatable and you could hear a pin drop in the venue as the audience clung to every word.
Several songs from the new album were performed next including “Boundless Love”, “Summers End”, “I Have Met My Love Today”. Prine’s songs aren’t very long, so he can fit a lot into a show-I counted at least 22 tonight. Number 13 was the classic “Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody” which has this lyric: “There’s roosters laying chickens and chickens layin’ eggs/Farm machinery eating people’s arms and legs.” I’ve only heard this song a few times, but for some reason that part always stands out to me and then I don’t want to eat eggs the next day.
“Angel From Montgomery” is one of Prine’s most iconic songs and it made Rolling Stone Magazine’s “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time” list. It tells the story of a middle-aged woman daydreaming of an angel to come and take her away from the life she’s living. Prine introduced it as, “a song Bonnie Raitt made famous and now they sing it on all of those voice contests,” before dedicating the song to Raitt.
The band left the stage and Prine, dressed all in black, stood in front of a black backdrop under a lone spotlight to sing the next songs including “Everything’s Ok” and “Illegal Smile”. Prine had the audience sing the latter’s chorus by themselves: “Ah, but fortunately I have the key to escape reality/And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile/It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while/Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone/No I’m just trying to have me some fun.” Margo Price came out to sing the duet “In Spite of Ourselves”, which Prine originally recorded in 1999 with Iris DeMent. “Unwed Fathers” followed, then the tragic “Sam Stone”, a heartbreaking song about a vet who comes home from “serving in the conflict overseas”, becomes a morphine addict and dies of a drug overdose. The song placed eighth in a Rolling Stone Magazine poll of the ten saddest songs of all time.
Bob Dylan once named “Lake Marie” as his favorite John Prine song. It has many twists, turns and juxtapositions, making it a complex and lyrically brilliant song. The song begins with the story of two abandoned white babies found by Native Americans who name the nearby lakes after them. Then it switches gears and focuses on a couple trying to save their marriage. After that, the song does a complete 180 and becomes about a grisly murder which the narrator is watching on the news: “The TV news/In a black and white video/Do you know what blood looks like in a black and white video? Shadows, shadows.”
The audience clapped and sang along to “When I Get To Heaven”, then Prine called Margo back onstage and said, “Ok, you’ve been asking for it, you’re going to get it.” Prine wrote the classic song for his father who had family in Paradise and included it on his debut album. The lyrics speak of the devastating effect strip mining can have and specifically references the town of Paradise in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky which was torn down by the TVA in 1967:
“Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel/And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land/Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken/Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River/Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam/I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’/Just five miles away from wherever I am.”
Chills. That song just gives me chills and its message still resonates today.
As Prine walked offstage the audience gave him a standing ovation while the rain barely held off until everyone began to head towards their cars. As it started to drizzle, several people burst into an impromptu sing-a-long and I think one day we’ll all whistle and go fishing in heaven-doesn’t sound too bad Mr. Prine.
Featured Photo by Dee Annis
Additional Photos by Jane Roser