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I was not a friend or even much of an acquaintance of John Prine’s, but he maybe recognized me from some local appearances where I played with him, or where he was present. I have been lucky to be in his presence.
On his birthday, a deck boat went on a sunset cruise to the Gulf. His wife and many of his close friends from Ireland and Nashville were present. Many local musicians were invited to perform; I also played a concert on Treasure Island beach with Tom Gribbin and the Saltwater Cowboys, and a show at Ka-Tiki, where John came and played.
And again at Joe Nuzzo’s birthday party, the Mad Beach Band played Gulfport Casino, in July 2018. With John’s music I mostly stayed out of the way and let the great songs tell their story. As any good backup player should.
At the Casino, my friends and bandmates played with the anticipation that John was going to come out for his friend Joe and perform. This kind of thing happened many times in the past, as it was often in the early Mad Beach Band days with Jimmy Buffett. The local fans knew John lived part-time in Gulfport and had made some appearances around the area, so this was a rampant rumor – many folks asked me if John was coming?
I was relieved when we finished our set. John showed up. He played a short and sweet set to a packed room.
When John finished, he hung out some. Many greeted him, and he was always gracious, accessible and friendly to everyone that ever had the pleasure to meet him. I know this is no easy feat.
He was sitting at a table. People were coming by often to greet him and speak; I was wanting to do the same. I let my shyness go. I went to his table. There happened to be an empty chair next to him, so I sat. In my mind, I was somewhat protecting him from an onslaught of fans that could be drunken encounters. Even as I had been around him before, and had been around many truly famous folks, I was still awkwardly awestruck.
There I was, sitting next to him with his full attention. I made some small talk and met his son Jack at the table. A few more folks came by. I was politely thinking of an exit – but also maybe a question that I could ask, as I had been trying to write songs. I respected his well-ordained talents as a Mark Twain of modern times. He was my hero.
If I remember correctly, the question I asked went something like this: “How can you write such poignant and timeless songs, with very serious themes, in a humorous way to put the point across without sounding preachy?”
There was a pause and a reflective look on his face as I waited, in slight terror.
He said something like, “Well, I guess it goes back to when I was in high school and the redneck jocks would kick my ass almost daily. I learned to used my wit and humor to disarm them, and found I could get along by making them laugh.”
I said “Thank you. We really need more of those songs now.”
I got up as more folks stormed in. He left the party very soon after that.
We all miss this great person.
Blues harmonica player and vocalist TC Carr has been a fixture on the St. Petersburg Music scene for more than 40 years, as a member of the Mad Beach Band, Tom Gribbin and the Saltwater Cowboys, and his own TC Carr and the Bolts of Blue.