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John Prine Was The Master Of Lyrical Economy

John Prine in 2009

Photo by Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns

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John Prine Was The Master Of Lyrical Economy

The late songwriting legend could stun you with a minimum of musical ingredients

GRAMMYs/Apr 8, 2020 - 08:13 pm

John Prine got his most famous acknowledgment from Bob Dylan, who praised his songs as "Proustian existentialism" and “Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree” in a 2009 HuffPost interview. While any songwriter would give their fretting hand for a Dylan cosign, his remark only tells half the story of Prine’s abilities.

"I’m kind of picky about songwriters, you know,” the two-time GRAMMY-winning Prine told Rolling Stone in 2015 while applauding his friend and protégé Jason Isbell. "I like songs that are clean and don’t have much fat on them — every line is direct, and all people can relate to it. That’s what I try to do."

By embargoing unnecessary language and rarely straying from the G, C, and D shapes on the guitar, Prine filled his classic albums, like 1971’s John Prine, 1973’s Sweet Revenge and 1978’s Bruised Orange, with songs that beamed from soul to soul with virtually no interference. 

Tragically, the COVID-19 pandemic cost Nashville perhaps its keenest lyrical craftsman when Prine died Tuesday (April 7) of complications due to the coronavirus. He was 73. 

"We join the world in mourning the passing of revered country and folk singer/songwriter John Prine," interim Recording Academy President/CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said in a statement. "John earned 11 GRAMMY nominations and received two GRAMMY Awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album, one for The Missing Years at the 34th GRAMMYs and another for Fair & Square at the 48th GRAMMYs. His self-titled debut album was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2015, and just recently he was announced as a 2020 Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for his contributions to music during his nearly five-decade career. Widely lauded as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation, John's impact will continue to inspire musicians for years to come. We send our deepest condolences to his loved ones."

Prine’s gift for musical economy took root years before he made a record. In 1964, the country singer Roger Miller released novelty singles "Dang Me," which won four GRAMMYs including Best Country & Western Song, and "Chug-a-Lug," which peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Both songs, Prine later said, were influential on his silly, unassuming style.

"I loved the way he put words together," Prine said in the 1986 book Written In My Soul: Rock’s Great Songwriters Talk About Creating Their Music. “The sounds of the words, whether they made sense or not, whether it sounded like nonsense, it’d just really get to me.”

Years later, Prine wrote his self-titled debut album partly while delivering mail in his hometown. "Hello in There" paints a portrait of senior-citizen neglect with strokes both subtle ("She sits and stares through the back-door screen") and broad ("Old trees just grow stronger…but old people just grow lonesome”) — exploring a complex theme without getting pedantic or using 10-dollar words.

"Sam Stone," another John Prine cut about a veteran with a monkey on his back, featured two lines honed to an uncomfortably fine point: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose."

While singing the future wartime anthem at his first-ever live performance, a 1969 open mic night at Chicago’s Fifth Peg, he was greeted with silence and glares. (When Johnny Cash, a devout Christian, covered "Sam Stone" in 1987, he changed the line to the immortally awkward "Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.")

As a counterweight to John Prine’s serious subjects, Prine injected silly rhymes and turns of phrase that would make Miller proud: "Well done / Hot dog bun / My sister’s a nun," he drawled in the album’s opener "lllegal Smile." "Turns out that topless lady had something up her sleeve," he noted in the hilarious "Spanish Pipedream."

Sweet Revenge lightened up even further, leaving Prine free to play in his lyrical sandbox. Goofy last will and testament "Please Don’t Bury Me" throws a volley of one-liners that’ll make your head spin, the throwaway “Often is a Word I Seldom Use” wrings comedy out of its oxymoronic title, and “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” packs an astonishing level of detail about its Camel-smoking subject into two minutes and change.

Bruised Orange is closer to the "mind-trips" that Dylan described while keeping the song lengths as tight as ever. The title track blooms a message about holding onto bitterness from a childhood memory of an altar boy’s death. "That’s the Way the World Goes Round" takes two verses — one about a local knucklehead, one about himself — and binds them with a chorus about things we can’t control.

There are similarly gratifying miniatures on every Prine album. The title track to 1980’s Storm Windows gradually absorbs a wintry scene before offering seven words of eternal wisdom: "Time don’t fly / It bounds and leaps." "All The Best,” a commentary on divorce from 1991’s The Missing Years, takes last-ditch metaphors of Christmas cards and snowmen and renders them unforgettable.

His final album, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness, was no different. "Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)" uses granddad humor to warn against acting before thinking, “Summer’s End” evokes a long sundown with a small handful of words, and closer "When I Get to Heaven" is a short list of what he’s doing now in the afterlife, namely drinking a vodka-and-ginger and smoking a cigarette nine miles long.

Prine may have passed the torch to a new generation including Isbell, but his absence as song-whittler is sorely missed. Lesser songwriters build monuments to themselves, but he understood the value of finding diamonds in the rough.

READ MORE: John Prine Talks 'My Kentucky Home, Goodnight' & Why He Wants To Benefit Coal Miners

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Melvin Edmonds Of R&B Vocal Group After 7 Dies At 65

Melvin Edmonds

Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

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Melvin Edmonds Of R&B Vocal Group After 7 Dies At 65

Edmonds was the "soul" and "signature element" of the group said member Keith Mitchell

GRAMMYs/May 21, 2019 - 03:05 am

Melvin Edmonds of GRAMMY-nominated late-80s R&B vocal group After 7, known for hits like "Ready Or Not," has died at the age of 65. 

His death was confirmed by After 7 group member Keith Mitchell via Facebook. The cause of death has not been officially released. Essence reports Edmonds died Saturday after battling a short illness. The singer had a stroke in 2011 among other health issues, according to CNN.  

"I will miss you; I love you, and Melvin, your legacy will live on through the music we created together!!" Mitchell said in the post.

Edmonds was the "soul" and "signature element" of the group, wrote Mitchell, which the two co-founded along with one of Edmonds' brothers Kevon. After 7 had three singles land on the Billboard Hot 100 in the '90s. The singles, "Can't Stop," "Ready Or Not" and "Heat Of The Moment" all hit the top 20. The group was nominated for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal for "Can't Stop" at the 33rd GRAMMY Awards

Beyond a musician, Edmonds was a father of four and brother to five, including Kenny "Babyface," Marvin Jr., Michael, Kevon and Derek.

"Melvin's love for audiences and fans everywhere who supported our music is what drove him on stage and in life. He is and will be missed by my family, fans, and friends," Mitchell said. 

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Keith Wilder, Heatwave Lead Singer, Dies

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Keith Wilder, Heatwave Lead Singer, Dies

The GRAMMY-nominated "Boogie Nights" and "Always And Forever" singer dies at age 65

GRAMMYs/Nov 1, 2017 - 04:10 am

Keith Wilder, the lead singer of GRAMMY-nominated '70s R&B/funk hitmakers Heatwave, died Oct. 29 at the age of 65. Wilder's death was confirmed by the group's manager, Les Spaine, via Rolling Stone. No specific cause of death has been confirmed, although fellow Heatwave band member Billy Jones told Dayton.com that Wilder died in his sleep.

Wilder, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, formed Heatwave in 1975 in Germany with his brother, Johnnie Wilder Jr., who was serving in the Army. The duo subsequently enlisted songwriter/keyboardist Rod Temperton, drummer Ernest "Bilbo" Berger, bassist Mario Mantese, and guitarists Eric Johns and Roy Carter.

In 1976 the group released their debut album, the platinum-plus Too Hot To Handle, which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200. The album spawned the hits "Boogie Nights" (No. 2) and "Always And Forever," both of which attained platinum status. Heatwave's sophomore LP, Central Heating, hit No. 10 on the strength of the Top 20 hit "The Groove Line." The group's third album, 1980's Hot Property, was certified gold.

Moving into a new decade, Heatwave released 1980's Candles and 1982's Current. By then, the group had lost Mantese, Wilder Jr. and Temperton, who at that point was emerging as a go-to songwriter for the likes of Michael Jackson, George Benson and Michael McDonald, among others.

Keith Wilder revamped Heatwave for 1988's The Fire, and kept the band alive as a touring entity into the '90s. While Wilder continued to tour in recent years, he was forced to retire from the road after suffering a stroke in 2015.

Wilder scored two nominations with Heatwave at the 20th GRAMMY Awards: Best Arrangement For Voices for "All You Do Is Dial" and Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus for "Boogie Nights"

"Johnnie was a MONSTER singer whose harmony game is unmatched," said Questlove in an Instagram post. "No REAL singer worth their grain of salt NEVER denied his mastery."

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Mel Tillis, Legendary Country Singer/Songwriter, Dies

Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

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Mel Tillis, Legendary Country Singer/Songwriter, Dies

Songwriter who wrote hits for Kenny Rogers, Tom Jones and Brenda Lee dies at age 85

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2017 - 08:59 pm

Mel Tillis, one of the more prolific singer/songwriters in country music history, died Nov. 19 following a battle with intestinal issues. He was 85 years old.

With a catalog of more than 1,000 songs, Tillis released more than 60 LPs over his six-decade-plus career. In the 1970s, Tillis hit a stride with a string of country chart smashes, including "Good Woman Blues," "Heart Healer" and "Coca Cola Cowboy." 

In addition to his successful solo career, Tillis wrote a variety of hits for artists such as Brenda Lee ("Emotions"), Webb Pierce ("I'm Tired"), Kenny Rogers ("Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town"), Charley Pride ("The Snakes Crawl At Night"), George Strait ("Thoughts Of A Fool"), Ricky Skaggs ("Honey, Open That Door"), and Tom Jones ("Detroit City"), among others.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss recorded Tillis' "Stick With Me Baby" for their T Bone Burnett-produced Raising Sand, which won Album Of The Year at the 51st GRAMMY Awards.

In 2007 he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tillis was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

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