When plans originally were made to induct singer-songwriter John Prine into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in 2020, he’d just won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was looking forward to attending the celebration that fall. Sadly, COVID would take his life that April and cause the 2020 inductions to be canceled altogether.
But as Austin City Limits executive producer and longtime host Terry Lickona — and a parade of Prine admirers — noted during the 2023 ceremony, held Oct. 26 at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, his impact and influence continues to be felt. Prine, who appeared nine times on the show and was the subject of a posthumous retrospective in 2020, was honored alongside country singer Trisha Yearwood, who’s performed on four ACL episodes.
Texas native Don Henley inducted Yearwood, who last appeared on the show as Henley’s guest on his episode in 2015. Austin-born actor and director Ethan Hawke inducted Prine, whose wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, and sons Jody Whelan and Jack and Tommy Prine, accepted the honor on his behalf.
“John would be a proud guy tonight,” his widow acknowledged, “especially to be inducted with his duet partner and friend.” Prine and Yearwood had sung “When Two Worlds Collide,” on Prine’s 1999 album, In Spite of Ourselves.
That song didn’t receive a tribute airing, but several of his most beloved tunes did. Tommy Prine sang “Souvenirs,” mentioning that his dad played it every night — and always dedicated it to his late friend, Steve Goodman. Kurt Vile, sounding almost more like John than his son, offered up “How Lucky,” an underrated Prine gem he recorded with its author just a few months before his death.
Allison Russell performed a lovely “Storm Windows”; Nathaniel Rateliff played “All the Best”; Tyler Childers, who guested on Prine’s final ACL taping in 2018, sang “Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You,” the honky-tonk tune Childers recorded for the tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine Vol. 2.
Valerie June, who toured with Prine following the release of his final album, The Tree of Forgiveness, called him “one of our teachers.”
“He was the gospel truth, and he was an angel,” she said before performing one of his most cherished songs: “Angel from Montgomery.”
“John Prine spoke directly to our hearts and minds with words and music that were uniquely brilliant, funny and real,” Hawke said in his introduction. In a preceding video, Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst noted, “He can say things that encapsulate the human experience in a way that’s heartfelt and humorous and sad — all at the same time — and still put it to a catchy melody. That’s a rare gift.”
(For more on the power of Prine’s words, read our review of the new book, Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters with John Prine by Holly Gleason.)
Lickona used the term “real” to describe Yearwood, too.
“When Trisha came along, there was something different about her that stood out above the pack,” he said. “She had a powerful voice to begin with, extremely emotional, and there was a certain quality about her that just seemed so authentic and real.
“She was a country artist at a time it was difficult for female country artists to break through,” he added. “Not that the doors are wide open today, but she made such an impact.”
Among those who felt it was Henley, who said he became a Yearwood fan the minute he heard her first hit, 1991’s “She’s in Love with the Boy” — which, he added, was the first debut single by a female artist to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart.
They became friends when he asked her to perform at a benefit for the Walden Woods Project, then she asked him to duet on two songs for her second album. At the inductions, he reprised the harmonies he sang on one of those songs: her 1992 hit, “Walkaway Joe” — the video for which featured then-University of Texas student Matthew McConaughey.
In an induction tribute video that also featured Yearwood’s husband, Garth Brooks, the Oscar-winning actor congratulated her, speculating that if he hadn’t landed that role, who knows whether he would have “made a couple of movies since.”
Musical tributes to Yearwood came from Jo Dee Messina, who remembered being knocked out by “the sound of her voice, the strength and quality, the way she sang with so much ease.”
“As a chick singer, you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I got work to do,’” said Messina, before delivering a strong rendition of “She’s in Love with the Boy,” followed by Yearwood and Ronnie Dunn’s soulful duet on “I’ll Carry You Home.” First-time ACL performers the Brothers Osborne sang “Wrong Side of Memphis,” and Brandy Clark, who shares Yearwood’s gift for nuance, gave a powerful, affecting rendering of “The Song Remembers When” after noting, “Trisha has one of those voices where you remember where you were the first time you heard it. For me she’s on the Mount Rushmore of singers: Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt, Karen Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood.”
In her acceptance speech, Yearwood said, “I want to talk about music for just a second. You have a world where music is sometimes increasingly hard to identify what’s real. The thing about Austin City Limits is you know the music here on this stage is made by real musicians, real artists. It’s all about the music here. And that’s why I’m so honored to be here.
“Whatever you’re doing here in Austin,” she added, “you can’t ever stop. This is so important for music.”
In a night full of affectionate anecdotes and moving tributes to both artists, perhaps the most touching moment came when each of the eclectic artists who’d performed Prine songs in his honor gathered to share vocals on the finale, “Paradise.”
After June sang the song’s last verse, beginning, “When I die let my ashes float down the Green River / Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam,” their voices joined for rounds of the final chorus: “And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where paradise lay.”
Finally, the others’ voices dropped out, letting Prine’s voice sing the last lines on his own. As they walked offstage, Prine’s youngest son wiped away a tear.
Perhaps he found some comfort in knowing that his father’s induction into the ACL Hall of Fame will help assure that his music — and memory — will live on.