Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Interview with Bruce Rits Gilbert: "John Prine One Song at a Time"

Is Bruce Rits Gilbert really a musician? I mean, he was a corporate lawyer for 30+ years, and he couldn't even imagine writing songs until a few years ago. But does it count that he saw the Beatles live and in person in 1964? And does it matter that he was a disk jockey in the 1970s? I don't know. 

But somehow, after a lifetime of playing air guitar, and inspired by The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, John Prine, and Bob Dylan, along with other great singer-songwriters, Bruce began his journey a few short years ago with a cheap acoustic guitar and a few songwriting ideas. So maybe, possibly, he's kind of almost a real musician now. Maybe. 

Author: Bruce Rits Gilbert
And is Bruce Rits Gilbert really an author? Well, he wrote a book called John Prine One Song at a Time. So, yeah, he's an author, too. 

Today, we’re going to talk about a legend. That legend is John Prine. John Prine’s music wasn’t over produced and it wasn’t written to appeal to the masses. His music was written from his heart. He was a poet and a roots type of person and he not only positively affected people, his music and personality touched so many hearts along the way. Here to talk about the book entitled John Prine One Song at a Time, we have Bruce Rits Gilbert. 

AIM: Thank you for talking with All Indie Magazine. 

BRG: Thanks so much for inviting me to chat about John Prine.   

AIM: So, let’s get into John Prine’s passing. As you know, he died due to complications associated to Covid-19. He was one of the first celebrity victims of the virus. When he passed, it affected so many people. In fact, even Bruce Springsteen made a special tribute in honor of John Prine. Did his passing also affect you in such a way that you felt you had to write this book?  

BRG: So interesting that you mentioned Bruce Springsteen. When John Prine was making his Grammy-winning record, The Missing Years, in 1991, John ran into Bruce in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Bruce asked if he could stop by the studio to play guitar or harmonica or something. So John invited him to stop by, and Bruce sings backing vocals on a great John Prine song called “Take a Look at My Heart.” When John died, Bruce said that John “wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives.” Which is so true. And like Bruce Springsteen, I, too, felt like I had lost a dear friend. I had never met John, but, after reading tributes to John from fans and music critics, I quickly realized that this was a common effect that he had on listeners around the world.   

AIM: What was the writing process behind the making of this book?  

BRG: When I learned that John died, my first instinct was to listen to his whole discography, starting with his first album and working my way to his last. But then I realized that it would be more meaningful to listen to his music with other John Prine fans. So I gathered my three daughters, a bunch of my nephews, a couple of my brothers-in-law, and a few others, and we started what we called “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 a lot of information about John Prine out in the world, there isn’t a single resource that discusses John’s life work. So I thought, “Maybe I could create that space.” So, a few weeks after we started “The John Prine Album Club,” I started researching material about John Prine and his songs, and, several months later, the first draft of the manuscript was finished.   

AIM: How did you come up with enough material to write a book? Did you personally know John Prine?  

BRG: As I mentioned, I had never met John Prine. But I had been obsessively listening to his music since the early 1970’s. And, as Fiona Prine, John’s wife, said recently in an interview on the CBS Morning Show, “Everything that you ever wanted to know about John is in his songs.” And I know his songs. And I had the time and ability to dig deep into the internet and other resources to find contemporaneous reviews of his albums, articles about his music, interviews in magazines, in newspapers, on TV, and on the radio, and put together what I think are interesting facts, thoughts, analysis, and tidbits about each of John’s songs. Album by album. One song at a time.   

AIM: So, tell us about your involvement in music. How did music play an important part of your life?  

BRG: Like many of us who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, I listened to a whole lot of rock and roll music when I was a kid. I saw The Beatles in concert in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1964, and I became a big fan of not only The Beatles, but the pioneers of rock and roll, like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis, and a host of others. As time went on, I learned about the folk singers of the era, like Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Leonard Cohen, and Simon & Garfunkel, and eventually John Prine. So music was constantly on my turntable. Fast forward several decades, and I eventually graduated from the air guitar to a real guitar, and I started writing and recording my own songs—with the help of some very talented young musicians. So, as a listener for many years (and still today) and then as a recording artist over the last few years, music has been a big part of my life.   

AIM: Let’s dig deep into John Prine One Song at a Time. For someone that’s hearing about this book for the first time, what is this book about?  

BRG: John Prine One Song at a Time is one fan’s tribute to the music of John Prine. The book discusses, in chronological order, each song on each album, beginning with John Prine’s first album, John Prine, and ending with his final single, “I Remember Everything.” In short, synthesizing reviews, anecdotes, interviews, live shows, lyrics, and John’s own reflections from 1970 to 2020, the book offers a unique celebration of the work that John Prine left behind.   

AIM: Do you remember where were you when you discovered John Prine?  How long ago was that?  

BRG: I remember exactly where I was when I first discovered John Prine. I was in my dorm room on the east side of campus at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. As I mention in the book, album trading/borrowing/taking-and-never-returning was kind of the norm at the time. And one day, in the spring semester of my freshman year in 1973, I ended up with John Prine’s debut album, John Prine, on my turntable. That album is filled with classic John Prine songs, and, even to this day, is considered one of the best albums ever recorded. Rolling Stone Magazine even ranked it as the 149th best album of all time in its 2020 ranking of the best 500 albums of all time.   

AIM: What was that first John Prine song that instantly hooked you?  

BRG: The very first song on John Prine is a song called “Illegal Smile.” Its opening lyrics 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, the song grabs you. But maybe it was the second song on the album, “Spanish Pipedream,” that totally reeled me in. It’s an upbeat, melodic, fun song with these lyrics in the chorus: “Blow up your TV, throw away your paper/Go to the country, build you a home/Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches/Try and find Jesus on your own.” It’s thoughtful. It’s funny. And it’s classic John Prine.   

AIM: Are you a musician yourself? If so, what instrument do you play and how much of an influence
did John Prine have on you?  

BRG: I started playing the guitar about eight years ago. John Prine was very influential in keeping me motivated to play better and better—in large part because his songs are mostly three chord songs, so I quickly realized that, once I learned how to play three chords, I could play John Prine songs. And, once I started playing John Prine songs, I never stopped. John, though, has a unique style of finger-picking, and he was very good at it. I’m still trying to master that. I also play the harmonica.   

AIM: If you were to compare John Prine to anyone, who would it be?  

BRG: After John Prine released his first album in 1971, he was dubbed one of the “next Dylans.” (Bruce Springsteen, Donovan, Gordon Lightfoot, and Randy Newman, among others, also held that moniker.) So I suppose that it’s fair to compare John Prine to Bob Dylan. But, although Bob Dylan’s lyrics are revered, they are not funny or irreverent like many of John Prine’s lyrics. And John, unlike Bob, was very much a “regular guy” who just liked spending time with his family and friends. So, rather than calling John the “next Bob Dylan,” I’d call John the first John Prine. And, as Rolling Stone Magazine said, John’s “closest parallel isn’t another songwriter, it’s Mark Twain.”  

AIM: For someone that has never heard of John Prine or even to those who know of him, why should they pick up this book?  

BRG: If you know John Prine, this book will allow you to dig deeper into John’s music, perhaps learn things about his songs that you didn’t know, and maybe learn about some John Prine recordings that you were not aware of. If you’ve never heard of John Prine, you’ll learn about one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters, and how he tackles a whole lot of tough topics with thoughtfulness and humor. And, whether you’re a John Prine aficionado or a John Prine novice,    the book will inspire you to listen to some of the best songs that were ever recorded.   

AIM: What is something unique about John Prine?  

BRG: John Prine’s songs, of course, are unique. His melodies are mostly upbeat and fun, and his lyrics are, as Paul Zollo, a writer for American Songwriter said, “so evocative, so purely precise and finely etched, that they linger in our hearts and minds like dreams.” And the wisdom, kindness, and gentle spirit that John possessed as a young man never dimmed when he got older. No matter what, he remained warmhearted and giving. He also had an amazing, and often funny, presence on stage. He was entirely comfortable in his own skin, while being  so comforting to those of us in the audience.   

AIM: So, what are you working on now? Are you planning on releasing any music yourself?  

BRG: In addition to promoting the book, I’m working on new music. I’ve put together an ad hoc group, which we call Boo Rits & The Missing Years. “Boo” is what my grandkids call me, “Rits” is my middle name, and “The Missing Years” is an homage to John Prine and his album of the same name. (We were previously called Bruce Rits Gilbert & The Missing Years, but we’ve rebranded.)   

The group includes Nick Gunty, whose day job is being one-half of the indie folk group called Frances Luke Accord. Nick is producing our music, and he also plays a number of instruments and adds backing vocals. Nick also co-wrote a few of the new songs with me. Matt Lyons, who is a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, is an exceptional guitar player, so he plays both electric and acoustic guitar, handling all of the lead guitar parts. Nick’s partner in Frances Luke Accord, Brian Powers, adds mandolin and backing vocals on a few songs. My three daughters, Molly, Emily, and Casey, all join in on vocals on a couple of songs. My nephew, Teddy Grossman, also a very talented singer-songwriter, adds backing vocals on a couple of songs. And my granddaughter, Jane, who just turned five, literally wrote and sings a song called “I Love Mermaids” for the album; it’s incredible.   

The new album, which will be called Marshmallow Jello, is a rock and roll/folk record that is kid friendly, although it’s not necessarily a kids’ album. We expect it to be released in June. It will have nine original songs (including Jane’s), and three covers, including our version of John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes Round.”   

AIM: Is your music influenced by John Prine?  

BRG: Many years ago, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Harlan Howard, said that great country music is “three chords and the truth.” John Prine’s songs are often exactly that. And I’ve listened to so much John Prine music over the years that my songwriting is based on John Prine principles. I don’t mean to suggest that I ever could write a song that is anywhere near the type that John has written, but writing a song that folks think sounds like a John Prine song is certainly a worthy goal.   

AIM: Do you think this is the start of writing more books in the near future?  

BRG: It might be. But, in order to write another book, I’ll have to be as inspired by and knowledgeable about a topic as I am by John Prine’s music. The writing process was a labor of love, which I found very satisfying. And I’d certainly consider doing it again if I can find a topic that is in my wheelhouse.   
AIM: Thank you so much for speaking with us and we look forward to your new music and reading your book!  

BRG: Thank you!

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