Being backstage at venues like Ryman Auditorium, The Troubadour, Bonnaroo and Radio City Music Hall watching his dad, legendary folk singer-songwriter John Prine, was everyday normal for Tommy.
“We had music industry folks, singer and songwriter friends, over to the house all the time just to have dinner,” said Tommy Prine, who is kicking off his first-ever tour with a show at Coligny Theater on Thursday, Aug. 5. “When you’re a kid, you take in the world as you see it. Being around this, being backstage, I grew up thinking this was what life was like for everybody. Now I know it’s a very niche lifestyle.”
He’s had a guitar in his hands since he was 10, but it took him a while to figure out if he could ever outshine the shadow of his dad, or if he even wanted to try.
“My dad was just the kindest soul. He was just this normal, humble dude—never acted big time but you just felt special to be in his presence,” Tommy said of his father, who passed away due to complications from COVID-19 on April 7, 2020. “He was a superhero to so many—a core influence on so many performers—but he just loved writing and singing. He had no idea how much he endeared himself to a crowd; he just got up and told stories and it was just magic right away.”
And that is a lot to live up to.
“I never wanted to try to live up to it. I had to figure out if I could make my own path,” said the 26-year-old son of Prine and Fiona Whelan.
His first time performing on stage was playing with his dad at age 18 at the Ryman, an October 2014 show he was told about in August.
“It was a horrific four months, a lot of sweating and panic, but when I got up there, started picking and singing, it just felt like home,” he said of his debut. “I just told Dad to never give me that much time to think about it again.”
Tommy spent much of the next four years bouncing around, far from a normal college experience. He started at a school in Fort Collins, Colo. as a freshman, then moved home to work for the family record label, Oh Boy Records. At the same time, he started volunteering for a Nashville nonprofit, Thistle Farms, a residential program for women rescued from sex trafficking, prostitution and addiction, and became friends with founder Becca Stevens and her son, Caney Hummon. He’d later introduce his mom to the program (she’s an ardent supporter to this day).
He finished up his college years at nearby Belmont University, living the stereotypical college life. “Being in Colorado and Belmont, making new friends outside my bubble, working at Thistle, I started to experience life a bit, the highs and lows,” Tommy said. “I’ve always written songs; it’s always been an inherent spiritual thing for me. Now I started to write more to get my feelings out, and being out on my own, I started to realize how special this lifestyle my mom and dad had earned truly was.”
It wasn’t until he attended a holiday party at his family’s house with his long-time girlfriend, Savannah Hallmark, two and a half years ago, that Tommy thought he had the kind of talent to make a career out of music. He played an original, “Something Like an Angel,” a song about his friend, Max Barry, who had died of a drug overdose. The piercing emotion in the words and his unique guitar picking caught the eye of one of his dad’s record producers, Dave Cobb.
“Dave asked if I wrote that. I said I had, and he said, ‘That’s the level of song other people really need to hear, Tommy.’ My mom and dad thought everything I did was amazing, but that’s parents. To hear it from Dave, who doesn’t sugarcoat for anyone, it’s the moment I thought maybe I can make a life of this.”
Tommy played intermittent encores with his dad around the world for John’s final four years, including much of 2019—many times playing one of the family’s favorites, “Paradise,” a song about John’s birthplace in rural Kentucky. His dad had survived neck cancer in 1996 and lung cancer in 2013. Both times, he was back out touring in six months.
“The lung cancer, his doctor had this unique rehab. I’d come home from lacrosse practice thinking I’m gassed, and he’d be running up two flights of stairs with his guitar, then he’d sing two songs,” Tommy said. “That’s him. He’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen. And you know, you survive that much, you start to think he’s invincible, even into his 70s.”
A virus hit Whelan in February 2020, a flu unlike she’d ever experienced. The concept of “coronavirus” was just starting to surface. She quarantined, but John soon began developing similar symptoms that only got worse.
“It was just brutal. His health was never great, but he’d never let you know. But this … just hard to put into words,” Tommy said of seeing the impact of COVID-19 first-hand. John Prine was one of the first big U.S. celebrities to pass from COVID. It became worldwide news immediately.
“We had 45 minutes together as a family before the news hit the airwaves. It became politicized immediately. I had to grieve and fend off all this bullshit politics; it just wasn’t right,” Tommy said. “It was almost bittersweet, those times on stage with him were so perfect. It was too good to last. Those four years playing with him were the best years of my life, hands down.”
Tommy has popped up on YouTube from time to time playing originals like “Ain’t Felt Like Me in a While,” a song about surviving his dad’s death during the pandemic. “Those six months, they felt like 10 years,” he said. “That was just trying to get some of that out to the world.”
He’s played mini-sets at places like the All Best Festival in the Dominican Republic in May, where he played with his older brother, Jack (don’t look for the Brothers Prine though; Tommy said Jack’s made it clear as of now, he’s not ready for the music path and is focused on staying clean after battles with addiction).
The Coligny show is the first gig of an official tour with Tommy Prine on the billboard. It’s in support of his first album being released later this year, thanks to the help of Cobb, producer Ruston Kelly and Oh Boy engineer and producing favorite Gena Johnson, and his dad’s booking agent and long-time friend, Mitchell Drosin.
Tommy had the chance to make a much bigger splash, likely could have ridden a wave of posthumous love for his dad and his family and translated that to skipping a few steps on the career-building ladder. But that’s just not what he was taught—not in his DNA. He wants his self-described “Jack Johnson meets John Mayer to sing some folk and Americana” songs and playing style to attract its own tribe.
“There were a lot of offers, sure, but I want to earn everything. I want my own fanbase built organically with a small circle of support.” Hallmark is his PR director. His mom and brothers Jack and Jody Whelan popping in are about as big as the entourage will get.
“Spots like Coligny, that’s right where I want to be right now, and I’m proud to have even gotten on Hilton Head’s radar,” Tommy said with trademark Prine humility. “I’ve been to Hilton Head once with Savannah and friends; absolutely loved it, just my vibe. I can’t wait.
“Dad was always honest, it was never ‘let me hook you up with this guy,’,” he said. “Mom always told me, ‘Your last name might get you in the door, but you have to have something to say.’ Our family earned everything, every step. That’s the only way this life is ever going to feel right.”