When your honoree has a candy heart and has spent the past half-century crafting songs that embrace the cracked humanity that so many miss with gentle compassion, you have a rare moment of pure grace. For John Prine, the onetime Chicago mailman turned chronicler of the human condition, BMI created just such a moment for its presentation of the Troubadour Award Monday night.

On the heels of his critically lauded, universally embraced The Tree of Forgiveness—and on the brink of the annual tribal gathering the Americana Conference & Festival— members of the wildly creative, deeply entrenched roots-music community drank Handsome Johnnies (vodka and ginger ale, with a lemon) in the fall chill. They also enjoyed a hearty meal, being served a classic Prine dinner of pot roast, roasted potatoes, carrots and onions in the grand lobby of the BMI building.

Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, John Paul White and Dan Auerbach; producers Dave Cobb, Garth Fundis and Ray Kennedy; bluegrass icons Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas; John Oates, Hayes Carll, Allison Moorer and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band‘s Jeff Hanna mingled with BMI’s Mike Wilson and Del Bryant, Americana Music Association head Jed Hilly, Ken Levitan, publishers Steve Markland, Ben Vaughan, Tracy Gershon and Patrick Clifford; Warner Nashville chief John Esposito and Paradigm’s iconic Bobby Cudd on the cobblestone portico before the seated dinner was served. Spirits were high, as much to see greatness recognized as it was reflecting Prine’s inherent buoyancy.

Taking the stage, VP Creative Nashville Jody Williams told the assembled, “The Troubadour Award is BMI’s way to honor and celebrate the greatest singer/songwriters we represent. The recipient should have a body of work that has not only stood the test of time, it must have influenced and inspired generations of songwriters who came after. And when the recipient is still creating new music, recording and touring to support it, they truly stand as beacons to the greater songwriting community. (This is the reason why John Prine is a BMI Troubadour.”

Weaving in video context—largely from Tree producer Cobb and folkie iconoclast Todd Snider who was signed to Prine’s Oh Boy! label, as well as Harris and Bonnie Raitt—the night belonged, as it should, to the songs. Brandy Clark did a honeyed take on “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” while Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings injected a deep-veined sweetness into “Big Ole Goofy World,” as well as a Prine-centric extra verse.

Brandi Carlile, in a pin-stripe jacket, a halo of mahogany curls and a voice that rippled like the waves on an old tube radio propped in an Appalachian window sill, retrieved “Angel From Montgomery” from the tired cliché it’s become by leaning into the pained frustration of the final verse from a thwarted spouse raging against the inertia of utter indifference.

Kacey Musgraves reinvented “I Just Want to Dance With You,” bringing a conga, a steel guitar, a trumpet/accordion player, upright bassist and cellist who both plucked and bowed the romantic invitation taken to #1 by George Strait. Laughing about approaching Prine at the Station Inn a decade prior, wanting to “burn one” with the folk legend, she suggested she’d like to dance with him and offered that she’d seen—and then simulated—his dancefloor moves.

The night belonged to Prine, who was brought onstage by Texas stalwart Robert Earl Keen after a heartbreaking version of the classic ballad “Hello in There,” about a cast-off elderly couple Prine didn’t sing a single song, yet his impact on American music was clear. As Snider had said earlier, “He is our Hank Williams, and all of the new ones, they’re drawing from him.”

Thanking his longtime manager Al Bunetta, Prine turned the light and love onto his son Jody Whelan, who runs Oh Boy! and has been a force behind Tree’s success, the current staff of Oh Boy! and especially his wife/manager Fiona Whelan Prine. Always a man of music, he thanked producer Cobb, as well as his co-writers Pat McLaughlin, Roger Cook, Keith Sykes, Auerbach and Gene “Ferg” Ferguson.

With his classic soft-spoken humility, the two-time Grammy-winner looked at the assembled room of friends, and said finally, “Thank you for the honor. I appreciate it very much.”

Photos: Danny Clinch

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