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Singer-songwriter Tommy Prine on finding his own voice in the shadow of his famous father
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Amna Nawaz: Twenty-eight-year-old singer-songwriter Tommy Prine made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry. That his artistic journey would bring him there was by no means assured.
Special correspondent Tom Casciato has that story for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Tom Casciato: Listening on this night at Gold Diggers in Los Angeles, you might think Tommy Prine was born to the stage.
Did you always know that this was something you wanted to do, to be a singer-songwriter?
Tommy Prine, Musician: Well, when I was little, I thought that's just what the world was. All my parents' friends were, like, musicians and songwriters. And so I was just like, oh, OK, cool. Like, Earth sounds rad. Like, everyone plays music.
Tom Casciato: His debut album called "This Far South" has a song called "Boyhood" that makes his boyhood sound idyllic.
Tommy Prine: On the album art cover is me looking up at some trees. For the first, I mean, 10, 12 years of my life, me and my brother and my parents would go to Ireland in the summers.
And those trees that I'm looking at are the trees that me and my brother, Jack, used to climb when we were kids.
Tom Casciato: But then came adolescence and, with it, punishing self-doubt.
Tommy Prine: Just the whole idea of becoming an artist and being able to, like, sing and play and write songs just sounded like an insurmountable feat.
And I think a lot of it is because my dad was always so honest about his journey and how he's like, what happened to me was like stardust and a fragment of more stardust. Like, it was just all luck, basically, you know?
And I think I let that…
Tom Casciato: Well, there was a certain amount of skill involved.
Tommy Prine: I agree. There is definitely quite some talent mixed in there as well with some luck.
Tom Casciato: Tommy's father, John Prine, was among the most renowned songwriters of his generation, a Grammy lifetime achievement winner. His music cast a long artistic shadow.
Tommy Prine: I don't know. I think it's just — I always wrote myself off.
Tom Casciato: Would you say that you were repressing something in yourself at that time?
Tommy Prine: Oh, yes, to put it lightly, yes.
Tom Casciato: And was the thing you were repressing that you wanted to be an artist?
Tommy Prine: I think so, I mean, because I was horrified to admit that to myself.
Tom Casciato: Even as he struggled with fears about expressing himself through music, tragedy struck in 2017.
He lost one of his best friends to addiction. He wrote a song describing his downward spiral.
Tommy Prine: "This Far South," I wrote in my early 20s. I was partying, like, really hard and doing a lot of stuff that I shouldn't be doing. And I was just turning into a man that I never wanted to be. Like, I was ashamed of myself, essentially.
And just through a lot of really kind of gnarly, dark experiences, I woke up one day and I think I recognized something in myself that nothing felt right.
Tom Casciato: He continued writing songs with no plan to release them, when tragedy struck again. In 2020, John Prine, a two-time cancer survivor, passed away early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tommy Prine: But on that day, I know that the world lost one of the best songwriters ever.
(Cheering and applause)
Tommy Prine: But, ultimately, on that day, I lost my dad.
Tom Casciato: Tommy wrote a song for his father, but first this.
There's a picture of you and your brother and your father when you and your brother are in these bear suits.
Tommy Prine: Yes.
Tom Casciato: What's up with the bear suits?
Tommy Prine: I don't know, man. Me and my brother just went to Target, and I was like, we should get the…
Tom Casciato: Was it Halloween? Was…
Tommy Prine: No, it was Christmas.
Tommy Prine: Well, like, my dad was just like — he loved Christmas. Like, he essentially waited all year for it to be Christmas again, you know? We just thought it would make him smile, so we got that. And it did. He loved it.
Tom Casciato: Did you have a close relationship?
Tommy Prine: With my father? Yes. Yes.
I mean, everything got flipped on its head when I lost my friend and then when I lost my dad. I think music really saved my life, to be honest with you.
Tom Casciato: It was his music that led to a call from two friends and Nashville notables, musician Ruston Kelly and engineer Gena Johnson.
Tommy Prine: And I was working at a gift shop at the time at the Country Music Hall of Fame. And they were like: "Hey, buddy. We love you. We think you should quit your job and become an artist. And we will help you make a record. And we both agree that this is what you should do with your life."
Tom Casciato: That wasn't the only love in his life. In 2022, he married his wife, Savannah. They'd been friends since they were 13.
Tommy Prine: She was with me through all of the ups and downs. I say music saved my life, but I think we all know who really saved my life.
Tom Casciato: You might say friendship is what's kept Tommy Prine afloat. He tours with another childhood friend on lead guitar, Josh Halper.
And he's got a song that sums up the whole journey, from self-doubt to self-expression. He wrote it at the Virginia farm where Johnny Cash and June Carter once lived. It's called "Cash Carter Hill."
Tommy Prine: The song itself is kind of like a proclamation of me putting aside the fear of being an artist and putting aside the preconceived notions that people may or may not have about me and the job that I chose, and just saying, like, I am going to get over everything that is thrown my way.
And I'm going to do it by playing music and being the most authentic version of Tommy that I can be.
Tom Casciato: That means, he said not long ago, walking not in his father's shadow, but walking next to it.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Tom Casciato in Los Angeles.