TRAVERSE CITY — Too many audiences are unfamiliar with the work of iconic American singer-songwriter John Prine, despite his profound influence on a world of musicians since the early 1970s.
It's a relationship Mark Lavengood multi-instrumentalist and bluegrass ace intends to foster.
“His repertoire is so expansive and cuts through to the core of human emotions,” said Lavengood, best known as the resonator guitar player for Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys. “I fell in love with John Prine and his work late in college. I’ve always wanted to set up a stretch of John Prine tribute shows.”
Now, he has.
Lavengood arranged a mini-tour of four John Prine tribute shows across west Michigan. The performances feature an “all-star lineup” of familiar musicians from all quarters – Traverse City-area guitarist-singer Seth Bernard of the Earthwork Music Collective; guitarist Michael Beauchamp of Kalamazoo’s Red Tail Ring; drummer Dan Rickabus of Grand Rapids’ The Crane Wives and bassist-guitarist Max Lockwood of Grand Rapids’ Big Dudee Roo.
The quintet unfurls “Prine Time” at 8 p.m. Friday at Traverse City’s InsideOut Gallery, 229 Garland St. ($15 admission), and again at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire.
“We’re planning on providing a rich, diverse musical performance with these tunes,” said Lavengood, a Michigan native who recently moved to Nashville with other members of Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys. “We’ll take turns each doing a solo number and we’ll do some stripped-down duo numbers as well, but the majority of the tunes will be full band numbers.”
Prine, now 68, has balanced incisive social commentary and touching character sketches with humorous ditties about life and love. Prine, initially discovered by Kris Kristofferson, released his self-titled debut album in 1971 and has become a beloved folk revivalist and country-hued tunesmith. He is known for songs like “Paradise,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Illegal Smile,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Dear Abby” and “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow).”
Lockwood, who started listening to these songs in high school, calls Prine “a back-country bodhisattva,” or enlightened being.
“He combines folk wisdom, sentimentality, humor, melancholy and social commentary in poignant ways that are singular to him,” Lockwood said. “‘Paradise’ has been a staple porch jam for me for years.”
Rickabus only began exploring Prine’s work after Lavengood approached him about the project. What he discovered was “an incredible songwriter” who brings “a wonderful tone to singing about life. It’s equal parts hilarious, heartfelt and deep. The process of studying his music has turned me into a lifelong fan and I can’t wait to celebrate the man.”
Lavengood sees the tribute tour as an opportunity “to expose our community to one of the finest songwriters of our times.”
“I’ve sung tons of Prine tunes with Seth and Beauchamp over the years, and … I thought we could do some serious justice to his repertoire and expose the folks who love the Michigan folk scene to some John Prine,” said Lavengood, who also expects the sets to include a couple of original tunes influenced by Prine.
Rickabus, Lavengood and Beauchamp recently wrapped appearances with their respective bands at the Folk Alliance International conference/showcase in Kansas City, so the Prine tour also represents the chance to spend time “with this amazing group of luminaries,” said Rickabus. “We really treasure these times to just hang with our brothers and jam tunes we don’t normally play. It’s great for the soul and wonderful for generating creative inspiration to bring back to our normal projects.”
The tour began in Kalamazoo and ends Sunday at Salt of the Earth in Fennville.