Peter Cooper, John Prine and Bill Murray
Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images
John Prine And Bill Murray Discuss Their Early Days Of Music, Comedy & More
Like other Chicagoans who left their hometown to become world-famous, both John Prine and Bill Murray remain Chicagoans at heart forever, forever imprinted by the big city where they started their careers in close-proximity to each other. So it made sense to bring these two old friends together to discuss how they went from Chicago boys to legends.
Presented by the Recording Academy Nashville Chapter and moderated by musician/author Peter Cooper, the conversation took place in front of an intimate audience at RCA’s historic Studio A in Nashville. The old friends reminisced about their early days in Chicago and crossing paths with the likes of John Belushi, Steve Goodman and Kris Kristofferson. They also talked songwriting, improvisational comedy, record deals, friendship, and much more.
On Getting Started
Prine: Soon as I could play one guitar chord and laid my ear upon that wood, I was gone. My soul was sold. Music was everything from then on. I’d listen to that chord as long as it would linger.
Murray: First time I went to class at Second City, I was so bad that I walked out to the street, and just kept walking. Then I hitchhiked around the country. When I came back, I could do it. I had to go out and live some before I could stand in my own shoes onstage and feel confident.
Prine: I was 22, working as a mailman, doing the open mike night. I wrote “Souvenirs” in the car on the way.
Cooper: How did you know at your age all about longing and, regret?
Prine: Man, I’ve known about that since my first pair of shoes. You know that first love that leaves you? You never forget that, especially if you’re a songwriter. I must have gotten nine songs out of that girl.
On Steve Goodman
Prine: [Goodman] was 5 feet 2 of dynamite. He was a ball of energy. Also the hardest person I’ve ever followed onstage. Steve would just drain the audience. They would have no bones on them after. Then he’d walk offstage, hit me on the shoulder, and say, “They’re gonna love you, Johnny.”
Murray: Sometimes I’d be done at Second City and they’d still be going at The Earl, so I’d stumble by to hear Prine or Steve Goodman. By then they’d already manipulated the crowd. There were men that were crying, and women who were just adoring. Musicians! They work their ways.
On Struggling To Survive
Murray: I had to get out the house. We lived in the suburbs and I was not welcome in my own house, because I was a troublemaker. I had a schedule worked out where I’d get in late, sleep past when everyone would leave, wake up, eat all the eggs I could, feed the dogs, and leave before they came back. Then I’d be out all night and come back and go to sleep before they left.
I’d go to Old Town, where my brother took care of me. I watched the shows at Second City a lot. It was Belushi, John Candy, my brother [Brian Doyle Murray]. and his friends. I’d hitchhike back and forth, because I had no money. And hitchhiking in Chicago in the winter is a ridiculous proposition. Somehow I made it home.
Prine: My goal was getting out of the post-office. I was a mailman walking in the snow six days a week, 12-hour days. Every two weeks I’d get a check for $228. Earl of the Earl of Old Town told me, “If you sing four nights a week, I’ll give you a thousand bucks cash under the table.” I thought, this is heaven! Once I got out, I was King of the Hill! I slept late all week and made a thousand dollars a week! I didn’t care if I never did anything else. I was a total 100% success. That was as far as I wanted to go. I didn’t think of getting a record deal.
On Finding Success
Murray: I was onstage at Second City and I did something in a scene, and I could feel it in me; I felt it react and rebound with the audience. It hit me I could support myself by doing this.
Prine: Kris Kristofferson and Steve Goodman were the two most unselfish people I ever met. Kris loved Steve, and said he needed to go to Nashville to make a record. Goodman said, “No. You need to go hear my buddy, John Prine.”
So at one in the morning on a Sunday they came to the Earl and I sang. Then Kris asked me to sing them again and said I was going to New York, too. Goodman and I went to New York, straight to the Bitter End. We see Kris, who told us we were each going to sing three songs a piece. Jerry Wexler came up after and asked me to come over to Atlantic the next morning at 10 am. I did, and he had a record contract on his desk waiting for me. I hadn’t been in New York 24 hours.
Back then in Chicago, you had to leave town to get a deal. Me and Goodman left town for three days and came back with record contracts. We were like returning astronauts! I never knew that wasn’t the way it went. I wondered for years why my peers kept their distance from me. It’s cause I was the Cinderella kid. And I was lucky.
Murray: These guys are ice-breakers. Kristofferson for you. Belushi was mine. He dragged all of us to New York for the National Lampoon radio show. Belushi broke it open for a lot of people and made it possible for find the opportunities. I was lucky. The spotlight would be on them, and I’d be the spare-part, like if they needed an extra bride-groom. I was lucky all the way.