John’s younger brother Billy makes it known that he can make music of his own
Being the sibling of a famous singer, songwriter or musician can be a tricky proposition.
Indeed, sharing the same surname of an indelible icon inevitably provokes a tangle of unreasonable expectations. There’s a certain standard that accompanies the family brand and the knowledge that people will inevitably make their judgments based on a name alone.
Lest there be any doubt, consider Chris Jagger, Mick’s younger brother. Despite a dozen albums, his musical career never gained total traction. Simon Townsend didn’t fare much better. Although he managed to get a regular role as brother Pete’s second guitarist in the Who and as an erstwhile member of Roger Daltrey’s touring band, he failed to attain a big breakthrough of his own. Michael McCartney wisely opted to change his stage name to McGear and achieved some solo success early on. But even so, he’s destined to dwell in the shadow of his big brother Paul.
While none of that is surprising, one can hope that fate will be kinder to Billy Prine. His older brother John was, of course, an American icon, and one of the prime movers as far as moving Americana into the mainstream. Billy, the youngest of four siblings, was seven years younger than his famous big brother. And so it’s particularly timely that in the wake of John’s passing from COVID-19 earlier this year, he’s chosen to release an offering of his own, an EP he’s titled A Place I Used To Know. It features two covers credited to his brother — “Paradise” and “If You Don’t Want My Love.” More importantly though, the record shows off his own songwriting prowess courtesy of the driving and decisive “Young Man Old Man Blues” and the easy, ambling title track. Two other songs complete the collection — the sprightly “I Mean I’m Mean,” penned by Vic McAlpin and Glenn Douglas, and an upbeat, Johnny Cash-inspired double-time rocker “Misery Train,” a contribution from EP producer and primary guitarist Michael Dinallo.
“Being John Prine’s brother always got me my foot in the door, but then I had to prove myself just to be able to stay in the room,” the younger Prine insists. “John and I used to have a standing joke that when people would go, ‘Oh, this is John Prine’s brother,’ John would say, ‘Hi, I’m Billy Prine’s brother.’ He’d turn it around. It can be stigma, and some people handle it better than others. Some people even try to get away from it. But I just loved John so much as a brother, and that’s how I thought of him first — as my brother. So w while I respect him as one of the greatest songwriters and performers in the world, first and foremost he and I were brothers and we were also very close.”
Notably, this isn’t the first time the younger Prine has made music of his own. He was performing with his own garage band at the age of twelve even as he began absorbing the varied musical influences that saturated the sounds of his native Chicago in the mid to late ‘60s. He eventually made his move to the sunnier environs of Southern California, where he continued to make music — most notably with a group that went by the dubious handle Whiplash and the Lawsuits — before returning to Chicago, detouring through various locales in the heartland along the way. He eventually found himself playing the local club circuit as part of an outfit he dubbed Billy and the Bangers.
A variety of gigs soon followed. He hosted a local television show and took a job working on the road assisting his brother. In 1993, he moved to Nashville, where he became an occasional deejay at a local radio station while also working behind the bar at the Bluebird Cafe.
From there, he took a gig as a talent manager with John Prine’s independent label Oh Boy Records and also began curating and producing the nationally syndicated “Live From Mountain Stage,” a radio series the company helped spawn. Nevertheless, the lure of making music found him back to the recording studio after a chance encounter with Dinallo, whose previous credits include his own efforts and those of his wife Juliet Simmons, as well as overseeing a multi-artist project called Feel Like Going Home, a sprawling tribute to the legendary singer and songwriter Charlie Rich.
“I started playing music out here around Nashville in 2007 or 2008,” Prine recalls. “And my girlfriend said, ‘You need to make a record.’ So I finally did and simply called it Billy Prine. I sold it at show’s and made it available through Oh Boy’s mail-order catalogs. It was pretty good and I sold a few copies, but I didn’t make it with a real producer. Then I did another one a little while later called Billy Big Beat Battalion. I put that out on my own just to sell at gigs and it managed to get a few good reviews. But when I met Michael, we were able to get a lot more serious about it.”
“When Billy and I met a little over three years ago, it felt like we had known each for a long time,” Dinallo adds. “There was an instant ease of communication about music, probably from our shared love of blues and R&B. That then spilled over into our friendship, a friendship that has grown into one of deep, mutual respect and love. I think you can hear that in the music on the EP. He’s like the older brother from another mother that I never had.”
While the music on the new EP offers echoes of Billy’s big brother John, Billy insists that the connection goes further than simply a similarity in sound. He says that early on John helped nurture his own appreciation for music, and that alone had a decided impact on the sounds he shares today.
“We were brothers, so we do sound a little bit alike,” Prine concedes. “However John also encouraged me to listen to a lot of folk stuff when I was a kid. People like Elizabeth Cotton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. John turned me on to Bob Dylan while I was very young. John and I had some similar musical tastes, but I was more into rock and roll and the late ‘60s stuff. I was a big Jimi Hendrix fan, a fan of early Fleetwood Mac. There were also a lot of British bands I liked around that time. I used to go to a lot of shows and I went to a few festivals as well. But then I got tired of the whole electric thing, so I bought an acoustic guitar and taught myself how to sing and accompany myself. John was also an influence there because he was so great at doing just that.”
The time the two spent together still resonates with the younger Prine, and it’s clear that his brother’s spirit is still resonates within him. “The memories I treasure the most are all the good times we had,” he reflects. “I went out on the road with John in 1978 as his assistant road manager, and I learned a lot from doing that. I learned what it takes to put on a big show. It was great traveling on the tour bus. Quite a few of us were into the party scene back then, but I also got to go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people. It was one of the best summers I ever had in my life.”
Consequently, while Billy is obviously intent on establishing his own musical identity, he’s also intent on preserving his Brother’s leagacy as well. He’s started a podcast that features interviews with family and friends that knew John well and played a part in making his music. Notably too, the new EP features contributions from Dave Jacques, who served as John Prine’s bass player for nearly 25 years.
VIDEO: Billy Prine at the Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Still, Prine points to his brother Dave, the oldest of the four boys, as the one among them who initially expressed interest in making music and then encouraged John to explore the possibilities as well. “We were going to do a brothers record —Dave, John and me,” he says ruefully. “We had even started discussing the songs we were going to include. But then the virus got John and we never had a chance to do it. I’d still really like to do some stuff with my brother Dave though. I’m 67 and he just turned 83, so neither one of us are getting any younger.”
Even so, Prine insists he’s pleased with his progress so far. The reviews of the EP have been very positive and he credits Dinallo with helping the record garner what he claims is the most press he’s ever gotten. Nevertheless, he’s disappointed that the pandemic has prevented the possibility of playing live shows that could help move the needle even more.
“It’s a drag because I really like performing,” Prine says sadly. “Who knows? They’re talking about a vaccination. I believe that’s the key to the whole thing. But I was talking to a concert promoter the other day, and he says he doesn’t plan to do anything til the second quarter of next year. I’ll probably just hold my own until that happens. However me and Michael are going to do some writing and come up with some more songs. We’d like to another record within the next six months.”
Dinallo concurs. “I believe we’ve just started to scratch the surface of what we can create,” he says. “But, at the same time we’re not gonna over think it. We’ll keep it honest, and behind the beat.”
Clearly, this newly primed Prine wouldn’t have it any other way.
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