The Legacy of John Prine through the eyes of Bruce Rits Gilbert Written by Samantha Skelton
Bruce Rits Gilbert’s world shifted when his long-time music hero John Prine passed in 2020. Instead of mulling on the loss, Bruce felt inspired by his legacy and hopes to share that with the world in his book John Prine One Song at a Time.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background? I was a lawyer for most of my professional career, but a few years ago, shortly before I retired as a lawyer, I made a bold move: I decided to move from the air guitar to the real guitar. I finally learned to play the guitar, in large part because of the inspiration of John Prine. Through his mostly three-chord songs, I realized that I could write songs. And I was lucky enough to meet a few young musicians who have helped me write and record music.
Has music always played a significant role in your life?
I’m a fan like most folks, but maybe I’m a more avid music fan than many. It started when I was growing up in the era of the Beatles. I would convince my folks to give me a few bucks to buy their albums. I was lucky enough to see the Beatles live in 1964 in my hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Music became an even bigger part of my life over the last few years when I started actually making music.
Does music influence your writing at all?
Professionally, being a lawyer, you tend to learn how to write legally, which is different than writing music lyrics. It took me a while to break out of the legal writing and stop being so literal - and be a little more poetic. As I started writing this book, the writing also became less lawyerly and more conversational. When I was younger, listening to the Beatles, and even when I first started listening to John Prine, I was more interested in melodies than lyrics, which were always secondary to me. As I got older, and maybe wiser, I started paying attention to lyrics more. John Prine’s lyrics are so important, sometimes political, sometimes funny, and almost always thoughtful. But it took me a while to realize how remarkable his lyrics are. That’s one reason why a book about John Prine’s music is so important. His lyrics were so impactful. Many singer-songwriters, like Dylan and Springsteen, who are considered the icons of American music and among the best lyricists of all time, have a tremendous amount of respect for John Prine. As a writer named Paul Zollo wrote - and it’s included on the back cover of John Prine One Song at a Time: “Prine’s lines are so evocative, so purely precise and finely etched, that they linger in our hearts and minds like dreams, separate from the songs.”
When was the first time you remember hearing a John Prine song?
I was in my dorm room at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was Spring of 1973. At the time, album borrowing and trading happened all the time in the dorms. A John Prine album came into my room one day. I put it on and I was blown away. I loved it. It was sort of country, but not traditionally country. It was melodic and catchy, but, soon after I first heard it, I started paying attention to lyrics more. As I mentioned, he was funny and thoughtful, and together with his very interesting and memorable melodies, it made for great music. What drove you to write a book about John Prine and his songs? John Prine died on April 7, 2020. I specifically remember this moment; I was watching a movie with my wife when my phone buzzed, and I got an alert that he died. It felt like a dear friend had died. I never met John, but he had been in my life musically for almost fifty years. My first thought was to start listening to his albums from beginning to end and work my way through all his albums. But, like many things, John’s music is even better if you listen to it with other people. So I asked all my family and a few friends who are John Prine fans if they wanted to start a John Prine Album Club, in which we would get together on Zoom, listen to a John Prine album each week, and then talk about the album. We just talked about memories associated with certain songs. Sometimes a few of us would also pick up our guitars and play some of those songs on these Zoom calls. It became clear eventually that I was leading these discussions. And I realized that I had a responsibility to bring something to the table each week: reviews, quotes, something thoughtful about the album. There was a lot of information about John Prine out there on the internet, but there wasn’t a book or a source that truly encompassed his life’s work. I thought that maybe I could create something. So I started researching and writing, and I kept writing, and, next thing you know, I had a manuscript. What do you think the legacy is that John Prine left? His legacy is a discography of music, which has thoughtful, funny, and poignant lyrics, tackling tough and thought-provoking topics, combined with mostly really fun, three-chord melodies. He’s an enduring artist, who never retired, but his career was tragically cut short when he died from COVID-19. For much of his career, John Prine was an under-the-radar artist. He had a bit of a cult following, but never really blew up commercially. Yet he still had, and still has a very dedicated fan base. Later in his life, he became a sort of hero, especially to Americana and folk music fans, and to some country music fans, too. He quietly, but steadily, created one of the best discographies of all time. He became an icon, even if it took a really long time to get there. What message do you hope people take away? There’s a serious message: Like John Prine, you should continue to do what you love, create if you can create, and work hard and stick with whatever it is you love and do it well. And the less serious message is this: I hope that the book will give people a fuller appreciation of who John Prine was and how extraordinary his music is. And I very much hope readers of the book will want to listen to more and more of John Prine’s music. Are you working on anything else? I started writing John Prine One Song at a Time as a one-off. I was particularly qualified to write about John Prine because, first, I’ve listened to more John Prine music than most folks, second, I’m a musician myself, and, third, I had the time and ability to do the research and writing necessary to complete this project. I’ll keep writing music and new songs, and John Prine will certainly remain an inspiration. In fact, our group, which we call Boo Rits & The Missing Years, will be putting out a new album this Spring. But writing John Prine One Song at a Time has made me believe that I could write another book if the right topic comes along. I hope that it’s something I dig into as deeply as I dug into this because writing this book has been fun, and I’m certainly very proud of this book.
You can read more about Bruce and purchase his book John Prine One Song at a Time at https://bruceritsgilbert.com