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SurfKY Exclusive - John Prine's Brother, Billy, Recalls Early Days in Muhlenberg

billy-prineBilly Prine performing in concertMUHLENBERG COUNTY, Ky. (6/24/14) —  Much like Muhlenberg County's Everly Brothers, brothers Billy and John Prine have much in common when it comes to a deep love for western Kentucky and its musical history.

The Prine brothers' musical tastes differ, but they share a deep love of the Muhlenberg sound created by the likes of Merle Travis, Mose Rager, and Don and Phil Everly.

Although John and Billy Prine were raised in Chicago, they still cherish their Muhlenberg musical roots and the time spent with their many relatives in the county. Billy Prine, the youngest of the four Prine brothers, told SurfKY News that he still loves spending time in Muhlenberg County, and hopes to return soon.  

"I'm the youngest of four siblings," Prine said. "John is next, then my brother Doug, who passed away. Doug was a policeman in Chicago for over 30 years. David Prine, the oldest of the brothers, still lives in Chicago. My father's name was William. I'm actually named after him but he didn't want any 'juniors', so I have always been called Billy Prine. As the song 'Paradise' says, 'Grandpa was a carpenter'. Mom and Dad moved around quite a bit because of that. They met in Kentucky, moved to Indiana and ended up in Chicago. Dad lived much of his life in a suburb of Chicago called Maywood. He made many trips to Muhlenberg County, and met our mom there. He would go from Chicago to western Kentucky every summer, for Memorial Day and reunions. Our mother, Verna Hamm Prine, lived in Nelson Creek in the 1920s. The family then moved to Paradise around 1930. Like many other residents of the small town, her family was paid to relocate when the TVA plant was built. They were married at the county courthouse in Greenville."

John-Prine-and-brothersJohn, Doug, Billy and Dave Prine, circa 1970s

John and Billy both now live in Nashville, and both have their own unique Prine musical style. John leans more toward acoustic tunes and writes most of his own music sometimes with a humorous twist as in the song "Dear Abby."

"Unlike John, I am more into the rock and blues music," Billy said. "There are a lot of writers' nights here in Nashville, but I'm not into that as much as John was when he was starting out. I used to play at the Blue Bird Cafe, and a place called Bogey's. Then I worked for John's music and management company, called Oh Boy Records. John got the idea for starting his own label from Steve Goodman, who was a very close family friend and most famous for writing 'City of New Orleans'. Steve was something else. He died when he was just 36 years old. He and John had the same manager. John started on Atlantic Records, and then moved to Asylum Records. He got tired of the big record companies and started his own label."

Billy Prine can still recall Paradise fondly, and visiting the general store there.

Billy-Prine-SacramentoBilly Prine at his aunt's house in Sacramento"Sherman Tunstill owned the Paradise General Store," Prine said. "Smith Tunstill inherited it, and Delmer Tunstill then owned it just before Paradise was bought out and leveled. The Hamm family reunion started up again in the 1960s, and we'd have that every year. All my aunts and uncles are gone now, so it's up to my cousins and me to keep that tradition going. I always loved it. I couldn't wait to come to Muhlenberg County. It's a lot different from Chicago, that's for sure. Our roots go deep in Muhlenberg County. Smith was my grandmother's maiden name on my father's side of the family. In fact, William Henderson Smith fought in the Civil War, and owned a farm in Paradise. We are also related to the Tunstill family. On mom's side of the family, she had nine siblings. I had two aunts out by Sacramento and one outside of Elizabethtown."

Prine noted that although his parents didn't play musical instruments, they did love country and folk music, and took the family to many concerts.

"Mom and Dad didn't play music," Prine said, "but they had a lot of good music in the house. And they took us to see a lot of great concerts - Johnny Cash, Earnest Tubb, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn. I saw a lot of the huge stars then. It was sort of a caravan type show."

Billy said that John really didn't brag about the songs he wrote, but by the time he was performing at local clubs in Chicago, much of his highly acclaimed first album was already completed.

"The first place John played was at The Fifth Peg," Prine said. "But he had already written most of the songs for his first album by then. John was never one to brag, 'Hey, look at this song I just wrote'. John kept his stuff to himself. He played at the Fifth Peg on a dare, and he ended up getting a steady gig there. Kristofferson and Anka came to see Steve Goodman perform but then Goodman said, 'If you like my music, you should hear John Prine.' John got up on the stage after the place had closed for the night and played songs for them at 3:30 in the morning. The rest is history."

Prine said he would love to return to the stage and perform in Muhlenberg County.

"The only time I have played in Muhlenberg County was when I've gotten up with John during the Everly Brothers' Homecoming Festival to sing backup on 'Paradise' Prine said. "I'd love to come back and perform for my many friends and the Prine fans. That would be great."

  Billy-and-John-Prine-young-John and Billy Prine fishing near their home in Chicago

Paul McRee
SurfKY News
Photos courtesy of Billy Prine

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