fb-pixel Skip to main content

With his famous last name and a guitar, Tommy Prine is just getting started

Tommy Prine, son of the late John Prine, is embarking on his first solo tour.MONICA SIMOES

Children of legends don’t have it easy.

Although songwriting and performing make Tommy Prine feel “the most like who I am,” going pro always “felt like an insurmountable mountain. Why would I even bother trying if my dad is who he is?”

John Prine died at 73 of COVID complications in April 2020. To his legion of fans, he was a folk hero, an Americana wordsmith, a Kurt Vonnegut with a guitar.

Tommy Prine, 26, fresh-faced with smiling eyes, looks not unlike a young John Prine. In conversation, he’s got an air of innocence about him. He laughs often.

In song, refreshingly, he sounds nothing like his father. While they share a finger-picking style, Tommy’s smooth voice is distinctly his.


And he’s come to realize, last name or not, he has to sing.

As Prine launches into the music world, embarking on a solo tour that brings him to City Winery on Saturday, it’s not coincidental that his concert merch appears to depict Atlas carrying “The Tree of Forgiveness” — his dad’s final album.

It’s actually the Celtic Tree of Life, he says, but he also figured folks would “infer ‘Tree of Forgiveness.’ ” It also “represents my family, because at some point, each of us has had to hold each other up.”

Might that be a metaphor for how he feels now, starting out? “A hundred percent,” he says. “It’s a way of me acknowledging the size of the shoes.”

It’s only in the last year or so that Prine has taken up the family trade. He is playing Boston so early in his career, in fact, that he has no album to sell. He’s not on Spotify. There’s no release date, no album title — though he expects those will be announced soon.

“I’m still figuring out all the business stuff. As far as I thought was making an album,” he says with a laugh.


But the few songs he’s posted to YouTube — none of which are on the album, he says — show raw talent. “Ain’t Felt Like Me in a While,” co-written with buddy Matt Mulhare, is a standout.

Prine knows that most people will buy tickets based on his last name. So while he plays mostly originals, he’ll throw in a few of “dad’s songs.”

“I’m a very new artist. I know whenever I sell more than 40 or 50 tickets, it’s because of who I am,” he says. “I know that people want to hear a couple of dad’s songs. I love playing them, too. I’m not the only person who covers John Prine.”

The youngest of two sons born to Prine and wife Fiona Whelan Prine, Tommy grew up in Nashville with his brother Jack. John adopted Fiona’s son, Jody, who now heads Prine-founded Oh Boy Records.

He first picked up a guitar around age 10. By watching his father, he learned to finger-pick.

Tommy Prine with his parents, Fiona and John.Courtesy of Tommy Prine

He went through a teenage folk-rebellion, digging Metallica and System of a Down. When he was around 17, his mom suggested he listen to Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern.”

“That was a turning point,” he says. “That’s when I had a fresh ear to listen to my dad’s music.”

He started going on the road with his father, selling merch and occasionally playing a song on stage. After opening for John at 30A Songwriters Festival, Tommy “caught the bug,” he says.


Songwriting, he says, is cathartic. One major trauma, of course, was losing his father. Both his parents had COVID. But “they were worried about my dad” because “he had respiratory issues and cancer.”

At the time, hospitals weren’t allowing visitors for COVID patients. They wheeled John into the hospital; Tommy never saw him again.

“My mom got to be with him when he passed,” he says quietly. “It was pretty traumatic.”

John Prine never got to see his son’s solo career.

“Seeing Tommy on stage is, above all, a source of immense pride and joy for me,” Fiona Whelan Prine says. “Naturally, there are melancholy moments because time is passing, and thoughts too, about how thrilled John would be and how helpful he would be to Tommy at this time.”

On April 7, the two-year anniversary of John’s death, Tommy posted to Facebook: “Hey Dad, It’s two years today since you left. A lot has happened since then. Savannah and I are getting married soon . . . I started doing what you did too. It sucks sometimes because I have so many questions . . . [and you’re] the one person that would know what to say.”

Prine proposed to his childhood sweetheart, Savannah Hallmark, in October on Ireland’s Flaggy Shore, with his father’s wedding ring.

“I was completely surprised,” says Hallmark. “Fiona has worn John’s wedding band on a necklace every day since we lost John, so I recognized it immediately.”


The two “met on a playground here in Nashville when we were about 13,” says Hallmark, who works remotely in Nashville for Indigo Ag, a Boston-based agricultural technology company.

“It wasn’t until we were in our early 20s before he played me one of his originals,” she says. “It’s been amazing watching him grow.”

It changes often, but right now Tommy’s favorite John Prine song is “The Late John Garfield Blues.” “It’s weird, but it creates this bridge in my mind where I’m talking to him,” he says. “I started playing that one at my shows — it’s like having a little conversation with him.”

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.


At City Winery, Haymarket Lounge, 80 Beverly St. April 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25. www.citywinery.com/boston