It felt like a standing-room-only audience had jammed into someone’s living room rather than in downtown’s spacious and very much sold out City Winery as modern-day musical icon John Prine opened the 19th annual Americana Music Festival and Conference Tuesday night with a showcase titled “John Prine and Friends.”
Prine and friends comfortably sat five abreast on the stage, with standup bass player David R. Ferguson cradling his giant instrument a few steps behind them while leaning on a stool. Fronting the stage was a who’s who who of songwriting talent: Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Roger Cook (“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” among countless other gems), Nashville treasure and longtime Prine writing partner and sideman Pat McLaughlin, Memphis-based songwriter and frequent Prine collaborator Keith Sykes, and Dan Auerbach, better known as front-man of arena rock group The Black Keys.
Dead center was the ever-affable Prine, who smiled a crooked smile and announced they were going to perform his Dave Cobb-produced new album “The Tree of Forgiveness.”
“We’re gonna sing these songs as they’re sequenced on the record. Otherwise,” quipped Prine, his voice a work of bemused gravel, “I can’t remember them.”
Although just released in April — and the quickest-selling album of the 71-year-old Prine’s long career — the release already sounds like a weathered folk-rock classic, typifying Americana itself as a wide-embracing musical genre.
Just the song titles evoke a laid-back, wistful America that still exists when you peel away the layers of political bombast and myriad inequities in a country too often measured by Red State-Blue State.
Out rolled “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” “I Have Met My Love Today,” the hilarious “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” “Summer’s End,” “Caravan of Fools” — featuring Auerbach’s plaintive vocals — “Lonesome Friends of Science,” “No Ordinary Blue,” “Boundless Love,” “God Only Knows,” and “When I Get to Heaven.”
Interspersed amid the songs were Prine’s trademark irreverent storytelling, which captured both the collaborative songwriting process as well as what it’s like to grow old gracefully with the help of a steady spouse — his wife, Fiona — and a collection of faithful shaggy dog friends young and old.
“I had no intention of getting into the studio anytime soon,” Prine said of writing and recording the album, a process that started in the summer of 2016. But then he showed up one day at Auerbach’s home studio with a bag of White Castle hamburgers, and before long the magic started happening, with recording taking place at the historic RCA Studio A on Nashville’s Music Row.
Following “The Tree of Forgiveness” — just 10 songs. “I get away with it,” said Prine — the set closers were Auerbach’s “Waiting on a Song,” the title track from Auerbach’s 2017 solo release, the playful McLaughlin-Prine favorite “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” from Prine’s 1991 LP “The Missing Years,” “Only Love” from Prine’s 1984 effort “Aimless Love,” and the set-closing “Paradise” from his self-titled 1971 record debut.
“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
“Down by the Green River where Paradise lay …”
“That’s where you come in,” Prine said to the adoring crowd, some dutifully singing the well-known lyrics, most others content to bathe in the waters of modern-day songwriting at its very best.
In a bill that also included dobro master Jerry Douglas and folk duo Mandolin Orange, the crowd didn’t measurably thin out for the short Prine-following set from folk-bluegrass supergroup I’m With Her.
Composed of Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and frequent Chris Thile collaborator Aoife O’Donovan — the trio gathered around a single standing microphone to bring to life several songs off their lone album, the 2018’s critically acclaimed “See You Around.”
Highlights from the album included the set-opening “Ain’t That Fine” and “Ryland (Under the Apple Tree),” with Jarosz’s outstanding mandolin and banjo playing, Watkins’ stellar fiddling, and O’Donovan’s otherworldly vocals taking star turns.
The set closed with their expert covers of Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” and John Hiatt’s “Crossing Muddy Waters.” Ladies, please release another album soon, with a subsequent headlining I’m With Her date at the Ryman Auditorium on more than a few fans’ holiday wish list.
AMERICANAFEST® 2018 continues through Sunday at various Nashville venues. View the full schedule on NowPlayingNashville or download the app from the AmericanaMusic.org website for the latest information.