Fiona Whelan-Prine: Irish wife of John Prine on keeping his legacy alive 

The woman who first met Prine in Dublin in 1988 returns to Ireland for a performance by artists Prine signed to his record label 
Fiona Whelan-Prine: Irish wife of John Prine on keeping his legacy alive 

Fiona Whelan and John Prine in New York in 2019 in New York, a year before he died from Covid-19. (Picture: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame )

The late John Prine was the songwriter’s songwriter. Bob Dylan once suggested he wrote “the most beautiful songs”, while Bruce Springsteen said it was “music of towering compassion with an almost unheard of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives”.

Unfortunately, Prine’s own life came to an end at the age of 73, in April 2020, due to complications from Covid-19. His Irish wife, Fiona Whelan-Prine, is still coming to terms with her beloved husband’s passing, but is determined to keep his legacy alive, and is taking to the road with artists he endorsed on Oh Boy Records, the label Prine co-founded in 1981.

Whelan-Prine will never forget the reaction to John’s death. “It was as if the whole world stopped to draw breathe,” the woman from Ardara, Co Donegal, recalls of the tributes paid to her husband. Among them was one from President Michael D Higgins, describing Prine as a “beloved presence” in Ireland.

The couple first met when Prine was on tour in Dublin back in 1988. He was going through a transitional period both musically and personally. His next studio album The Missing Years (1991) would mark a solid comeback with an array of special guests including Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.

“John had some missing years himself after a difficult second marriage,” says Whelan-Prine down the line from Tennessee. “From here he wasn’t sure which way he wanted to go musically… only John could write the way he did. He had a resurgence and we created this family and had children.” While in Ireland a favourite haunt of Prine’s was Green’s bar in Kinvara, Galway. Summers would be spent playing with fellow musicians, among them Paul Brady, Declan O’Rourke and Sharon Shannon.

 “He saw himself as part of that community at grassroots level, especially when the children were younger,” explains Whelan-Prine. “He loved the simplicity of life among the artists, musicians, writers and poets in the small communities gathering in the pub and singing songs. There is so much about it that he appreciated, you just don’t get that so much anymore in America. Ireland is a unique place; there’s nowhere else like it. I’d take him back to the village I’m from in Donegal, it reminded him of his early life in Kentucky.” 

 Oh Boy Records tapped into a similar sentiment. He resisted lucrative offers while continuing to deliver an honest presentation of independent folk and country music, with the label acting as vehicle both for his own music and the work of others.

Run by Prine’s family today the label (one of America’s oldest independents) is about to embark on a European tour, with the closing night taking place at The Workman’s Club in Dublin. Prine’s wife will make one of a few select appearances in Ireland alongside Oh Boy artists that include Arlo McKinley, Emily Scott Robinson and Kelsey Waldon, each of them carrying forward something of Prine’s grassroots spirit.

Prine-Whelan explains what drew her late husband to sign each songwriter. “They are all wonderful young writers, I think they all have the same dedication and craft that John had, each of them underlines the work we do at Oh Boy Records.”

 Robinson’s style echoes Prine’s concern with lost souls on the wrong side of the American dream. “All good writers draw on what they know,” explains Whelan-Prine. “John rarely put himself in his songs although he did have direct experiences of the subjects he was writing about. Emily is a very mature young woman and has a gifted way of looking at life. My first thought when I heard her was Nancy Griffith, I didn’t realise Nancy was one of her all-time favourites. Life in America is very different from anywhere else. Today we are waking up to very harrowing stuff with gun violence again. Emily, like Nancy, writes about characters on the great plains of America, she wraps them around that American experience.”

Meanwhile, Kelsey Waldon offers a raw slice of outlaw Americana summoning Gold-era Ryan Adams. “John loved Kelsey, they had obvious connections with a Kentucky upbringing and those influences but he loved just singing with her. There’s something special in her voice and she continues to grow as a songwriter. In every track, there is a real vulnerability and maturity which is a fantastic mix.” 

Prine had a particular fondness for singing with female artists. It was at the tail end of the 1990s that he recorded In Spite of Ourselves, an album of duets featuring the likes of Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris.

“John would always say women made his voice sound better, he never thought he was Pavarotti but he was very proud that women would agree to sing with him and he loved to duet with women on In Spite of Ourselves [1999] and For Better Or For Worse [2016].”

 Oh Boy also released work by Kris Kristofferson, the songwriter credited with helping Prine get his first record deal. Kristofferson wasn’t alone with his endorsement. Johnny Cash once said he went to the “big four” songwriters for inspiration, one of them being Prine.

Bonnie Raitt, who covered Prine’s signature song, Angel From Montgomery, said of him: “The combination of being that tender and that wise and that astute mixed with his homespun sense of humour, it was probably the closest thing for those of us that didn’t get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person.” 

 It’s fair to say Prine had an extraordinary sway among his contemporaries. His singular ability to write about the ordinary working-class experience with pathos, humour and appreciation won him a legion of admirers. “John marvelled at his own success,” says Whelan-Prine. “At home he was just a regular guy. Success and celebrity didn’t come easy to John so when he would get comments from peers and elders in the industry he was thrilled, he would have a big grin across his face.”

 The Country Music Hall of Fame owns a picture of Prine with Bono at Sun Studios in 1988 when the Irish band were recording Rattle and Hum. Just as U2 were absorbing the American heartlands for inspiration, Prine decided to do the same thing in Ireland.

“I remember we went to the U2 show at the Point around that time [on the Lovetown tour]. What they were finding in America, John was discovering in Ireland. I was working in Dublin back in the ‘80s at a recording studio and over the following couple of years we figured out a way to be together. As crazy and unlikely as it seemed we managed to create a beautiful life together, our family and life in Ireland were something he treasured. I still have the family home there in Kinvara.”

 The Oh Boy Records tour takes in cities where Prine enjoyed a particularly strong affinity with his audience. “He also loved Glasgow and made those connections, he loved the people when wandering the city, before or after a show he’d run into them. He didn’t understand everything they said but would have stood there all day, he got that heart to heart feeling from them.”

 Oh Boy nurtures the purity of its acts, among them Arlo McKinley will also appear in Dublin. His stark, beautiful songs about outsiders and misfits that have run out of money and luck will stop listeners in their tracks.

“When you look at John’s songwriting and issues he’s talking about, you are hearing the same themes being addressed with these writers several decades later in the American heartland. Whether it’s broken marriages or substance abuse none of these writers shies away. We are carrying on the tradition and speaking truth to power; there’s no girl in short shorts sitting in the back of a truck in any of these songs.” 

John Prine with Kelsey Waldon, one of the artists who will play the Dublin gig. 
John Prine with Kelsey Waldon, one of the artists who will play the Dublin gig. 

 The Oh Boy Records tour featuring Arlo McKinley, Emily Scott Robinson and Kelsey Waldon reaches The Workman's Club, Dublin on June 22. For other dates, see https://ohboy.com/pages/oh-boy-goes-to-europe-2022

More in this section

Scene & Heard
Newsletter

Music, film art, culture, books and more from Munster and beyond.......curated weekly by the Irish Examiner Arts Editor.

Sign up