Tommy Prine isn't standing in his dad's shadow. He's 'just walking next to it'

Tommy Prine at The Basement  in Nashville , Tenn., Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.
Tommy Prine at The Basement in Nashville , Tenn., Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.

Tommy Prine never actually imagined a life in songwriting.

To gingerly step into the family business? To put his vulnerabilities on a playlist where anyone can listen? For the youngest son of late folk hero John Prine, it seemed ridiculous — until it didn't.

"It was always in the back of my head but it was quickly shot down, like why would I even try? I felt like I didn't have it in me," Prine said. He added, "The whole prospect of following in my dad's footsteps, back then it felt like I would be walking under this huge shadow."

Now, after years of writing songs for himself, he's letting others in. With encouragement from a few friends — producer Gena Johnson and singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly — Prine now prepares to share stories once tucked away from much of the world around him. His debut album, "This Far South," hits streaming services and record store shelves on June 23. This month, he plays his first headlining Nashville shows with a residency at the Basement.

And when listeners drop a needle on the new tunes from this budding artist, they'll hear a collection of songs about love, loss and life in-between that Prine can wholly call his own.

"If I spend my life feeling like I'm under my father's shadow, then I'm never going to be able to figure out who I am," Prine said. "I had to switch my perspective on that. Now I feel like I'm walking next to it. I see it. It's in proximity to me, but I don't feel like I'm walking under it."

'Whoa, are you sure?'

Prine first approached songwriting as a teenager who often spun albums from Avett Brothers, Trampled By Turtles and John Mayer. He mainly strummed the guitar for close-knit friends or girls he hoped to impress.

As adulthood took hold, Prine kept songwriting buckled firmly in the backseat of his life. He attended a few colleges, eventually graduating from Belmont University. On some weekend nights, he took shifts at the door of local club Basement East. During the day, Prine logged hours at the Country Music Hall of Fame gift shop.

Tommy Prine performs during the Hello From The Hills  fundraising concert to benefit non-profit organizations focused on addiction recovery, transitional housing and youth incarceration in Tennessee at City Winery Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Tommy Prine performs during the Hello From The Hills fundraising concert to benefit non-profit organizations focused on addiction recovery, transitional housing and youth incarceration in Tennessee at City Winery Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

Then, in 2020 — weeks after his father died of COVID-19 complications — he shared would-be album title track "This Far South" with Kelly during a late-night song-swapping hang. After hearing the song, Kelly convinced him to cut a demo.

"We did it and it was awesome, I had so much fun," Prine said.

But he didn't hear from Kelly for weeks after the session.

"I was like, 'damn,' I was really bad," Prine said. "I was really embarrassing."

Of course, Prine wasn't embarrassing. In November 2020, Kelly and Johnson — who worked on John Prine's final album "The Tree of Forgiveness" — hopped on a conference call to convince him to quit his job and make an album. Weeks later, they entered a Berry Hill studio to cut some songs.

In the young Prine, Johnson heard a songwriter "with the biggest heart," she said.

"I just want every single dream to come true for him," Johnson said. "[He's] genuine, real. ... Whatever I could do to help, I would — because I truly love him like family."

And when Prine told his family, he said they replied with one question: "They were very much like, 'Whoa, are you sure?'"

He continued, "At the time, I didn't know at all what I was getting myself into. but I'm very glad I did because I've never felt more like myself in my entire life."

Making 'This Far South'

Prine enlisted Kelly and Johnson to co-produce "This Far South," an 11-song album that veers from boisterous alt-rock (album opener "Elohim") to jaunty folk-punk ("Mirror and a Kitchen Sink") and stripped-down storytelling ("Letter To My Brother").

Tommy Prine at The Basement in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.
Tommy Prine at The Basement in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.

Prine tackles heavy-hearted topics, like the death of his father and loss of best friend Max Barry, the son of former Nashville mayor Megan Barry who died of a drug overdose in 2017. He wrote "Letter To My Brother" for those struggling with addiction; on the song, Prine sings with a cracking voice: "And how many times have you died/ One too many .... times/ I’m tired, I’m so tired."

And on sobering piano ballad "By The Way," Prine sings: "I don’t wanna talk about the day you slipped away/ It’s still hard to hear your voice in the songs we used to sing ... by the way, people say I look just like you."

Prine said, "I think a big part of my job and the job of songwriters and artists is to be as vulnerable as possible. This album is me being very vulnerable and saying who I am. I made a record that I honestly would've loved to listen to when I was in different phases of genres."

In Johnson's experience, "there were a lot of tears and a lot of laugher during the recording sessions," she said.

"There's just so many good moments on it," Johnson said. "It's a really deep record. It's not fluff. He's talking about hard stuff."

For one album writing session, he retreated with Kelly — at John Carter Cash's invitation — to rural Virginia for a weeklong getaway on land passed down through country music's Carter Family. Listeners hear the result on "Cash Carter Hill," a cathartic folk-rock about cutting one's own path. He sings, "If you ask the right questions and your soul starts to fill/ You’ve found your own trail up on Cash-Carter hill."

But "This Far South" doesn't stall on life's downtrodden moments. The album closes with "I Love You, Always," a tender-hearted tune dedicated to Prine's wife, Savannah.

"There's a lot of points on this record where it's like, 'Wow, this dude has been through some s***,'" Prine said. "I wanted to end it with something where ... I found something through all this darkness that ended up being one of the most beautiful experiences of my life: Meeting my wife."

Listen to Tommy Prine's new song 'This Far South'

Give Prine's new song an exclusive spin in the later below.

See Tommy Prine in Nashville

  • What: Tommy Prine plays his first run of headlining Nashville shows this month with a residency at the Basement

  • When: March 2, 9, 16 and 30

  • Cost: Tickets start at $10

  • Location: The Basement, 1604 8th Ave S.

  • More information: thebasementnashville.com

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tommy Prine, son of John Prine, is carving his own path in music