Backstage and on stage at Nashville’s Opryland, Ben Fong-Torres, rock journalist from Rolling Stone, was shadowing Bonnie Raitt, the star of the evening’s attraction. In the shadows, lurking inside his cheap suit and a cloud of tobacco smoke, was Tom Waits, an up-and-coming beatnik pianist-poet .
I was there to interview John Prine. His road manager, Danny Cronin, complete with New England accent, was working the room, promoting Prine’s growing appeal to anyone who would listen: “Johnny’s capable of drawing 9,000 on his own in D.C.” But this was Nashville, Tennessee, on a late winter day in 1975. Prine was sandwich-billed between Tom and Bonnie.
Six hours earlier, a hundred yards behind the Country Music Hall of Fame—a museum housing Dolly Parton’s retired wigs—I was introduced to John Prine in his room on the third floor, top floor of the Hall of Fame Motor Inn. When road manager Danny ushered me in, Prine was chatting with Chuck Morris, a record promo man. Also present was a cute little ingenue/singer named Katy Moffat.
Danny announced to all present, “Hey, this is Bill Conrad, a reportah, from wheah?”
“Between here and Dallas,” I answered. Prine presented a cordial smile and offered me a drink. He asked, “Who ya write for?” I tried not to diminish my relevance by answering, “Most anybody who will print my stuff, but this is for a great little freebie out of Dallas, Buddy Magazine. The name honors Buddy Holly.” I jumped right into interview mode: “Do you have a band with you?”
Prine smiled and shrugged, “Naw, ran out of money.” Danny chimed in, telling us it was tough times for all but the megastars. His economic theory had us somewhere between depression, which had been traditionally good for show business, and rampant inflation which was good for nobody. That was heady information inside the Hall of Fame Motor Inn.
It didn’t require a Johnny Carson intellect to quickly find out the difficulty of having a relevant conversation with John Prine in that mix of company. He was nervous in the service, bobbing and weaving like a bladder-full kid on a nonstop school bus. And he was dressed funkier than Tom Waits who would appear later in the day. John chose threadbare jeans—pegged, patched, and rolled at the bottom— exposing olive sweat socks inside Converse sneakers. The open-collar shirt and secondhand suit jacket were secondary attire.
A sound check was scheduled at four o’clock that afternoon. Six of us piled into a rented Ford and followed Bonnie Raitt’s big-ass tour bus to the suburbs and the mini-Disney complex recently built and named Opryland, USA. We were part of the Bonnie Raitt tour with special guests, John Prine and Tom Waits. Her chromed leviathan of a bus was a scaled-down version of Loretta Lynn’s “Velvet Violet,” complete with a wet bar and driver for only $2100 per week.
Somebody was making money, Danny.
Bonnie Raitt, with the curls and waves of radiant auburn hair, was the very white lady who could play blues guitar and sing with the best of any race or gender. She was in charge of people, places, and things sometimes beyond her control: fifteen men on the road, including rock journalist, Ben Fong-Torres. Bonnie was the quip queen, just one of the guys, as fast as most comedians with the one-liners: “My next album, I’m calling it Turn Your Head and Cough.”
In 1976, The Opry House with its adjoining hotel and amusement park became the new home of Country Music’s Grand Ole Opry. With seating for 4400 ticket holders, the venue was plush and acoustically state of the art. Left to decay was the 2400-seat Ryman Auditorium, a grand old hall constructed in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, and home to the Opry for over three decades.
The sound check was not on schedule. A silver-haired piano tuner was slowly striking the keys of a Baldwin grand while nudging his tuning hammer. Bonnie’s keyboard wiz, Alan Hand, hired from Prine’s last touring band, was forced to rehearse on his portable electric. He loved riffing between tunes, in spite of Bonnie’s disapproving glares and her “Let’s keep moving, or else.” She commented on the slick joint’s acoustics, “Sounds amazing in this place. I can hear myself blink!” She noticed Prine’s hightop Converse sneakers: “Love your shoes, John.”
Bonnie decided she and her two male guest stars would rehearse an encore tune the three of them could perform together. She had chosen the R&B classic, “High Blood Pressure” by Huey “Piano” Smith. Tom and John were game, and flanking Bonnie they presented a unique flashback— a couple of bit players from The Blackboard Jungle, and their leading lady. (Bonnie’s dad was John Raitt, a genuine movie star/singer from Tinseltown’s golden era.) When they joined voices for each chorus, Waits with a Lucky Strike in the corner of his mouth, rooster-walked around his mike, while Prine kind of leaned into his from the side. A disastrous first run-through prompted Miss Raitt to muse, “That oughta go down in the anals of history!” A photographer, with People Weekly credentials, rested his impressive black Nikon atop Bonnie’s amp. Ben Fong rewound the tape in his Sony recorder. Prine remembered the reporta who was there for him, and strolled down from the stage to take a seat next to mine.
“How ya doin, Bill?” How’d he remember my name?
I told him I was “sneaking by” and asked him about his hometown, Chicago. Did he like living there?
“Naw, just too lazy to move. Waitin’ for all the furniture to wear out, then I’ll just leave it.” He smiled just enough for me to weigh the degree of indifference in his response, then I asked him about the Chicago scene. He perked up a bit.
“Great clubs, y’know, for somebody just trying to scrape a living. There’s a lot of clubs. Wow. There must be at least, at the very least, seven good, little 200-seaters: Earl of Old Town, Quiet Knight, Fifth Peg.”
Prine, like his lyrics, presented a cast of characters, but he was never acting. He came off as a genuinely likable guy, comfortable inside his music and his Converse sneakers. I asked him how he liked the recent tour with back-up musicians.
“Loved it. I really got my kicks, man! I got so comfortable I didn’t front enough with my guitar. After Common Sense (his most recent album), I was wonderin’ why the reviews weren’t so good, because they were coming from a real weird place. I didn’t understand ’em at all.” His tone was growing darker. “And find out the record company’s sending a sheet around with the lyrics, comparing the album with (Dylan’s) Highway 61.” Prine is still seething. “My own record company! I said ‘What do you guys wanta send something like that along for?’”
I was thinking, You’re that good, John. They love you and they just don’t know how to say it.
Darkness fell on Opryland. It was show time. The pews weren’t half full with a rather sedate, collegiate collection. A stray Harriett Krishna was mingling with the audience, offering free sticks of incense and adding that donations were optional. Before she could chant “Hare Rama,” the house dicks were on her and escorting her off property.
The thin crowd was not quite ready for Tom Waits, who opened the show, seated at the freshly tuned grand piano. His “San Diego Serenade” had received some local FM play the year before, but he was still “Tom who?” to most listeners. Waits eased into a few minor and diminished chords and, through a somewhat lazy growl, delivered some sort of Bohemian free verse that made you lean forward and listen. He brought to mind an illegitimate Springsteen brother from the Bowery. You knew he was no stranger to bus stations, half-pints of liquor, and all-night diners. He combed his hair with his hand and covered it with a button-down herringbone cap. He doesn’t shave often, he’s happy to roll his own smokes, and when he’s horny, said he, “…even the crack of dawn ain’t safe.”
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Tom Waits was street-smart, corruptible, and well aware of his place in commercial music. He lamented, “This music business is just so much H&R Block to me.”
Waits moved comfortably between piano and guitar, and then broke into an a capella, finger-snapping rap about pie a la mode at his favorite greasy spoon cafe. Springsteen, the legitimate growler, had a bit more croon in his tune and a traveled with a back-up army of players. After forty-five minutes, Tom’s weighty solo tomes wore down the Opryland audience. Like the sideshow freak who can tie himself into a knot, Waits earned a respectable applause. He sauntered offstage to light his next cigarette and down a slug of Ezra Brooks.
John Prine walked center stage with only a little more momentum than Waits had mustered. The audience managed a warm welcome with the odd whistle and yelp. Were it not for public radio, he would have been a relative newcomer to Nashville’s concertgoers. He managed a quip that some folks heard, then launched nonstop into his best song stories:
“Sam Stone,” “Muhlenberg County,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and his poignant lament for old folks, “Hello In There.” It was soon apparent this song set was now two years old. He was not delivering anything new.
In a club with a few hundred seats and alcohol for sale, this offering would still have been okay, but the Opry House soon swallowed John and had patrons ready for Bonnie and band. Prine was awarded his encore, “Illegal Smile,” and left the stage with the same whistle and holler his arrival had received.
John Prine’s first songs in the seventies became folk/country classics. Kris Kristofferson, credited with discovering Prine, said, “His songs are so good, we might have to break his thumbs.” I was thinking, if those “guys” at his record label would ease off a bit, this great American composer about to turn thirty would not have to tell reporters, “I’ve got about four, five things workin’ right now, and can’t sit down and finish one of ’em.” Like Waits, he didn’t fit the pop music mold. He was more country than folk and wrote social satire as deftly as (dare I compare?), Dylan. In commercial terms, he was, in his own words, “a victim of the great compromise.”
The mere vision of slinky Bonnie Raitt lifted the fading skull orchard to a state of mind over Nyquil, or whatever takes Tennesseans down a notch. There she was, flashing that smile: the Hollywood refugee who found rhythm and blues in Cambridge, Mass., just down the road from Danny Cronin’s home in Woosta. Bonnie brought her hot licks, her swivel hips, and that mesmerizing lightly sanded voice, but she couldn’t afford the band she deserved. Good players they were, but not the back-up blues sound Miss Bonnie was seeking. The original crowd noise was augmented and amplified. Bonnie already had some solid Nashville fan support. She brought the boys out for the “High Blood Pressure” encore and had the house almost rocking for a few minutes.
Then it was over. The house lights came up. Bonnie, John, and Tom locked arms behind each other to bow as one, and left their audience feeling okay.