To twist a line from the late, great John Prine, there's a hole in our hearts where the music goes.
Mountain Stage and host Larry Groce have presented live performances for radio for almost 40 years, and each trip around the sun extracts a price: the passing of more iconic performers who planted and cultivated the roots music we all love.
Because of the pandemic's global reach, coupled with the slow train of age itself, no musical genre has been left untouched by the loss of seminal artists. Culled from a recent memorial show of eight country and Americana artists, this segment highlights two songs each in celebration of four classic artists who stopped by often enough — and with good enough songs and stories — to feel like family: Jerry Jeff Walker, Tony Rice, Billy Joe Shaver and John Prine.
That scamp, Jerry Jeff Walker, the spirited architect of the Texas outlaw country scene, passed away at age 78 on Oct. 23, 2020, from throat cancer. In this visit to Mountain Stage, Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band boiled up a wild and free set, including a lively take on Walker's biggest hit, "Mr. Bojangles." During the tavern choir singalong, "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother," written by Walker's good friend Ray Wylie Hubbard, the band howled like coyotes. Meanwhile the Gypsy Songman joyously ad-libbed, the audience sang along and the collective energy lit a musical prairie fire of enthusiasm that swept over the airwaves.
Bluegrass master Tony Rice passed away Dec. 25, 2020, at the age of 69 of unspecified health conditions. Rice infused bluegrass with flecks of polished jazz, pop and folk, forever expanding its sound. Groce noted that Rice – influenced by the late Clarence White — brought a fresh energy to bluegrass as a lead guitarist and vocalist. In 1994, a diagnosis of dysphonia stopped his vocal performances, but this 1989 appearance showed off Rice's double-edged sword as a master guitarist and emotive baritone vocalist. The Tony Rice Unit bore into "Nine Pound Hammer" at thoroughbred speed before they burst into breakdowns that showcased Rice's genius in blurring boundaries.
"Years are gambled and lost like summer wages," sang Rice on "Summer Wages" as his bourbon-aged baritone slowly dripped over the rocks of the Ian Tyson song Rice made famous on the ground-breaking 1977 album J.D. Crowe and New South, one of the top selling bluegrass recordings of all time.
Perhaps the most authentic and resilient "Honky Tonk Hero" of the outlaw Texas singer-songwriter movement, Billy Joe Shaver had the songs, the spirit and scars to prove it. Shaver, who Willie Nelson called the greatest living songwriter, died at age 81 on Oct. 28, 2020 after suffering a stroke. Shaver, who wrote all but one song on Waylon Jennings' 1973 breakthrough LP, Honky Tonk Heroes, was a favorite of Mountain Stage. He made seven trips through the years.
"I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna cross that river / I'm gonna catch tomorrow now," Shaver sang on "Live Forever," the transcendent song he penned with his son Eddy, a blazing country guitarist who died of a heroin overdose on New Year's Eve in 2000. Also included in this remembrance of Shaver is the infectious, buoyant rocker "Love is So Sweet," a hopeful tune off of The Earth Rolls On, the last album he cut with Eddy, a year after the passing of Billy Joe's wife, Brenda, whom he divorced twice and married three times.
Closing out the segment is "Fish and Whistle" and "Souvenirs," from the canon of John Prine, songs culled from visits to Mountain Stage in 1995 and 1997. Nashville's beloved patron saint of Americana songwriters, Prine died on April 7, 2020, of complications due to COVID-19. He was 73.
On "Fish and Whistle," America's singing mailman delivered his blue collar-wrapped spiritual package wryly written in three-chord gold. "Father forgive us for what we must do / You forgive us, we'll forgive you / We'll forgive each other 'til we both turn blue / Then we'll whistle and go fishing in heaven."
Before "Souvenirs," Prine, then celebrating his 25th year in music, brought the Mountain Stage audience to fits of laughter with one of his trademark comedic introductions. He wrote the song on the steering wheel of his '65 Chevelle driving to The Fifth Peg where he first sang his game-changing story-songs such as "Sam Stone," "Hello in There" and "Paradise."
"I started out at this club in Chicago. I was still a postal employee, I had a mail route — 487 stops/496 dogs. They all knew me by first name," Prine said as the audience roared. Prine dedicated the song to his mentor and good friend, the late Steve Goodman, stopped to give a shout out to his two boys in the audience, then with his wistful, youthful sounding voice and two fingers picking his guitar, gave up the priceless and timeless pearls of wisdom in "Souvenirs": "Memories they can't be boughten / They can't be won at carnivals for free / Well it took me years to get those souvenirs / And I don't know how they slipped away from me."