Appreciating the Legacy of Songwriter John Prine One Song at a Time, with Bruce Rits Gilbert
Bruce Rits Gilbert has been a John Prine fan for quite some time now. He recalls being moved by the opening lyrics of Illegal Smile, a moment that would incite a lifelong appreciation for the late songwriter and inspire him to write the ultimate guidebook to his discography, John Prine One Song at a Time.
COVID-19 has taken so much from the world, and earlier this year, it also took away songwriter John Prine. Hearing about the death of a beloved artist is never easy, especially when their death seems premature or even preventable. Upon hearing the unfortunate news about John Prine, Bruce Rits Gilbert got together with family and friends and started what they called: “The John Prine Album Club.” Week by week, they listened to a Prine album and analyzed and appreciated the work together.
Gilbert realized that they were not alone in their admiration for John Prine’s work, and what better way to celebrate such a widely loved artist than by writing a book about their prolific body of work for like-minded fans?
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
For most of my professional career, I was a corporate lawyer, serving as general counsel to a multi-billion-dollar hospital company and two smaller health care companies. My wife, Andi—who has just retired after serving for 20 years as the president of our local community hospital—and I have been married for 39 years. We have three daughters and four grandkids. I currently am an investor and limited partner with a venture capital firm, and I serve as a volunteer coach for a boys' high school varsity basketball team in Philadelphia. I've also become a late-to-life musician, releasing four albums, with a fifth on the way. And, perhaps most relevant for purposes of writing John Prine One Song at a Time, I've been an ardent John Prine fan since 1973.
How did your book, “One Song at a Time” come about? Why did you decide to write a book about John Prine?
When John Prine died on April 7, 2020, it hit me hard. I never met him, but, somehow, I felt that I knew him. After reading tributes to him from fans and music critics alike, I realized that this was a common effect he had on listeners from around the world. When we lost John Prine, most of us felt like we had lost a dear friend. My first instinct was to revisit his whole discography, starting with John Prine and working my way to The Tree of Forgiveness. But, like most all great things, John’s music always sounds better when shared, so I gathered my three daughters, four of my nephews, two of my brothers-in-law, and a couple of other folks, and we started what we dubbed “The John Prine Album Club.” Our mission was simply to listen to each John Prine album—one per week—and discuss them together.
And then I realized that, although there is lots of information on John Prine out in the world, there isn’t a single resource that discusses his life’s work. Sure, there’s content about him all over the internet. But there isn’t a single place to go for insight about his songs and records. So I thought: “Maybe I could create that place.”
Do you remember when you first heard a John Prine song? Can you recall what song it was and what about it stood out to you?
The first John Prine song that I heard was "Illegal Smile," which is track one of John Prine, John's debut album. The opening lyrics to "Illegal Smile" go like this: “When I woke up this morning, things were looking bad/Seems like total silence was the only friend I had.” And with just three chords, in the key of G (John’s favorite), this song grabs you. I remember being struck by the humor and irreverence in his lyrics and the simplicity in the catchy melody. It was fun. And it was different from Dylan and other folk singers of the era. It was a stunning debut.
It’s not a biography, can you explain the structure of the book?
You're right: John Prine One Song at a Time is not a biography. Rather, this is a fan book. It’s nothing more or less than a review of John Prine’s music, written and curated by one John Prine fan, culled from reviews and opinions from 1970 to 2020, along with my own observations and insights—and, importantly, some of John's own thoughts about his music. Album by album. One song at a time.
For readers who may not be familiar with Prine's work but have a great appreciation for music, what can they look forward to in this book?
John Prine One Song at a Time will give readers a comprehensive guide to John Prine's entire discography. But it's not just a "guide." It's filled with history, anecdotes, tid-bits, insights, reviews, highlights, scrutiny, and affection for this revered singer-songwriter.
What would you like your readers to take away?
In the end, after reading John Prine One Song at a Time, I expect readers to have a full appreciation for, and understanding of, John's music and John himself. But, mostly, I expect that readers will want to listen to a whole lot more of John Prine's music.
John Prine recently passed. Any thoughts you’d like to share?
I'm angry that COVID-19 took John from the world way before his time. Our federal government mismanaged this virus right from the very start, and their mismanagement caused hundreds of thousands of people to die who should still be alive. It was—it remains—very simply, horrific. For the music world, the premature loss of John Prine was devastating. For John’s family and friends, it was tragic beyond words.
I will miss seeing John Prine in concert very much. I will miss listening to and savoring new John Prine songs. But mostly, I will miss knowing that John Prine is in the world. Because the world was so much better with John Prine in it.
We can never get John Prine back. But we are lucky that he left us with a legendary catalogue of music that we can listen to over and over and over again. One song at a time.
You’re also a singer/songwriter, have you always had a passion for songwriting?
For as long as I can remember, I've loved music, and I've always been an avid listener of music. But, as I noted before, I'm a late-to-life musician. I started playing the guitar about seven or eight years ago, and then, in large part because of the influence of John Prine and his songs, I started writing songs five years ago or so. I came to realize that, as Country Music Hall-of-Famer, Harlan Howard, said many years ago, you can write a really good song with "three chords and the truth." And, with the help of two very talented musicians, Matt Lyons and Nick Gunty, I've been able to record some of the songs that I've written.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
A few years ago, I put together an ad-hoc group which we called Bruce Rits Gilbert & The Missing Years. We've rebranded, so now we're known as Boo Rits & The Missing Years. (My grandkids call me "Boo," and The Missing Years is an homage to John Prine and his album called The Missing Years.)
We're currently working on a new album, which will likely have eight or nine original songs and a few covers, including a new version of John Prine's "That's the Way the World Goes Round." We expect to release a single from the album early in 2021 (about the time that the book is released).
Nick Gunty, who is one-half of the really talented folk duo, Frances Luke Accord, is producing the record, and he'll play on it as well. Matt Lyons is our lead guitarist. And a few others have joined us, too: My nephew Teddy Grossman, who just released his first single of his own, pops in on a couple of songs. My three daughters, Molly, Emily, and Casey, all add backing vocals on a track or two. And my granddaughter, Jane, who is four years old, wrote a song called "I Love Mermaids," which she recorded in my home studio, and which will be on the album. We're really excited about this project.
And, of course, we're really excited about John Prine One Song at a Time.
To learn more about Bruce Rits Gilbert, or Boo Rits, and his book John Prine One Song at a Time click here.