Photo: Emma Delevante (Tommy Prine); Randi Malkin Steinberger (Micah Nelson); others with permission from the Axton, Hiatt and Keen families
Tommy Prine, a singer-songwriter early in his career, cannot escape comparisons to one of the best in history -- his father. His first full-length album provides a range of original content offering listeners the opportunity to search for influences -- inevitably leading fans to seek out his dad in those tracks.
“There was no other way to step out into the world besides as John Prine’s son,” Prine told Saddle Mountain Post. “But it wasn’t as if I went out and did one tour as his son and stopped. People are starting to see me as choosing this life. I did the work.”
Prine faces the dilemma of the next generation. He must balance his responsibility of facilitating, fostering and honoring his famous parent’s legacy while also advancing his music. In a genre that often scoffs at change, especially when considering the canonical members of its aristocracy, like John Prine, children must carefully establish themselves as separate from their family, but without destroying the benefits of the association either.
In many ways, Lukas and Micah Nelson face a similar balancing act. Each has carved out space as talented individual artists, but when nonagenarian Willie Nelson ascends stages around the country, he is nearly always flanked by his talented sons. For many fans, Lukas and Micah will forever be the children of their legendary father.
But that does not seem to concern the youngest Nelson, who performs as Particle Kid, making music that does not conform in any way to the work of his father.
“I wouldn’t trade this time with my dad for anything,” said Micah Nelson. “I have plenty of time to do my thing later, but who knows how much longer he will be out here on the road.”
“It’s the same with Neil [Young]. While these guys are still around, I want to support them and give back how I can. They’ve given me more than they’ll ever know. It feels right to be there for them when they ask me.”
Time with the older generation is a real concern. Willie Nelson’s most recent album explores the inevitable passage of time and its end result. John Prine’s last record — as well as one of his earliest hits — focuses on his own death and legacy.
Tommy Prine, who explores his father’s passing in his song “By the Way,” wrote in its notes, that “on April 7, 2020, the world lost one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but I lost my dad.”
Support, Expectation and Blood Covers
“I got into music pretty young,” said Lilly Hiatt, a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter from her home in East Nashville. “Everyone was into music.”
While the early piano lessons didn’t stick, her desire to “tinker with the keyboard” in her father’s studio fostered a love of music and songwriting from a very early age. John Hiatt, who penned “Have a Little Faith in Me,” as well as hits for singers across the American music landscape, had an obvious and profound impact on her chosen career.
“I felt pretty free in my experience, music is a safe space. But there is a level of pressure I put on myself. My dad is successful and good. I want to be successful and good.”
And she wants to do the work. She explained that the Hiatts come from “a long line of honest, hard-working people.”
“I’m proud of my last name,” she said. “It took a long time to fully inhabit it.”
The Axton family name comes with a similarly storied songwriting history. Hoyt Axton’s credits include some of the most enduring songs of the late 20th century, including “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain.” His mother, Mae Axton, was a hitmaker, co-writing “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley in 1955, and an industry powerbroker. Ms. Axton expended considerable energy supporting her son’s pursuits, ensuring the right people heard his music early in his career.
“She connected the dots for Dad,” said Matt Axton, Hoyt’s son and an Americana artist based in Los Angeles. “I kind of wish I had that for me.”
The elder Axtons were the only intergenerational family to individually write number-one hit songs. “I want to make it three in a row. That’s not too much to ask,” said the youngest Axton.
Like Hiatt, music surrounded Axton from an early age, with many of his earliest memories being about touring as a family. While the music was always there, sports dominated Axton’s high school and college career. Standing about 6’4’’ and built like a brick wall, he played football, basketball and track.
He remembers picking up an old Spanish guitar his father brought home from filming “The Black Stallion” to learn a few riffs. Living in different states at the time, he thought he would “have a moment” when he shared what he learned with his father. However, after several strokes, Hoyt was unable to play along with his teenage son, resulting in a complicated interaction.
“I kinda saw the music die a bit at that moment,” said Axton, who had a poster on his wall at the time noting, “Musicians Never Die, They Just Decompose.”
It was several years until Axton picked the guitar up again. After an injury ended his prospects of playing competitive sports, he seriously considered music as a career path.
“You are your experiences,” he explained. “I learned a lot about what to do in music and art from my dad. And a lot about what not to do as well.”
His father died when Axton was in his late teens. As a member of the “test generation,” Axton’s father tried everything, resulting in wonderful art, but a less-than-healthy lifestyle, his son noted. He was an “old Okie who never ate a vegetable.”
Yet even with the complicated connection to his father and his music, Axton still sees his lineage as a “driving force.”
“It’s pushing from behind, not pushing me down.”
Prine sees it a bit differently.
“As opposed to walking in my father’s shadow, I’m walking next to it,” he said, “There are definitely times where I let it get to me when I think of the legacy of my father, but if I think about that too much, then that completely takes away the focus and attention I need to spend on my music and my life. I’m not looking to fill his shoes, and I had to get over that on day one.”
Atxon plays his father’s songs at nearly every show, often closing with “Joy to the World.”
“I love playing his songs, but I have battles,” he said. “I feel honored to play his music, but there is a bit of duty. Some people say I should play more of my music.”
His regular 45-minute set will include five original songs and three “blood covers,” Axton said.
Even before his father’s passing, many people came to Prine’s shows because they were fans of his dad. Prine felt obligated to play more of his father’s songs when he first got on stage.
“I wanted to show them respect for paying to see the show.”
But he doesn’t do that anymore, at least they are not on his normal set list, Prine explained. He has to feel like adding one of his father’s songs to a performance at the moment.
“I’m making the distinction between a Tommy Prine show and a Prine show,” he said.
The Nelsons play a critical role in supporting their father during live shows, taking on verses of classic songs. A listener would be forgiven for thinking they heard a young Willie jump on stage when Lukas or Micah take the lead on one of their father’s hits — but they rarely, if ever, play them when they tour individually.
Finding Something New Together
Clara Rose was searching for a way to describe the dynamic nature of her father’s music to her friends as she pursued her undergraduate art history degree. Country music had changed so much over the course of his career, she said, and what her friends knew as country music did not reflect her father’s work.
Shortly after graduating and before pursuing a secondary degree, she was painting and listening to a lot of Americana music. She knew she found the right description. This broadly defined, less-commercial, narrative-driven music was what her father, Robert Earl Keen, had been creating for decades.
“Americana was a way to describe Dad’s style,” she said. “It provided a way to come into a modern place and helped him refine what he was doing.”
Not long after this, she pitched him the idea of hosting a podcast, and the “Americana Podcast – The 51st State” was born.
“She dragged me kicking and screaming into the podcast,” Keen joked during a recent interview. “Clara convinced me it was necessary to help expand and refine the genre. Not only did I get introduced to new artists, it revived and rejuvenated my whole idea of listening to new music. In some ways, it’s been life-saving to listen to and enjoy new music.”
He explained that as the years rolled by, he stopped listening to new music, realizing he “lived in a bubble on that bus for 20 years.” His idea of a good musical experience was to end a night, “pour a glass of whiskey or something, and listen to Tammy Wynette for two hours straight.”
“Because as you get older you just don’t listen to new music,” Keen lamented. “So I was introduced to so much new music because of Clara and I dove in on my own a bit, and to my great surprise, this generation is amazing.”
Not only did this collaborative process shift Keen’s perspective, but working together on the podcast changed how Clara Rose chose to engage with and create art. After attending a few industry events in Nashville as a member of the industry, not an artist’s kid, “a light bulb went off” in her head, and she shelved applications for a master’s in art history and she started working to secure a position in an entertainment business program.
The father and daughter pair make a great team because they come to the music from such different perspectives, explained Keen. “Together, we’ve been able to piece together a pretty solid and somewhat diverse program and that’s how we continue.”
Clara Rose serves as the producer of the show, does the booking, a “huge amount of research about the artist,” and develops the material, including an extensive playlist of music by the guests. Keen brings a musician’s approach and his singular voice to the show.
Their ability to work together as partners is at the core of this new project, but it isn’t without some conflict, said Clara Rose. “I feel fortunate — and not so fortunate — because we can be brutally honest with each other in every way.”
Crafting the show together, they lean on each other’s strengths to develop a top-tier product. “There are things that he would ask about song structure that I wouldn’t think of, whereas I do have an insane curiosity about process and lifestyle.”
“Another thing that makes us a great team is that she’s not a player and does not like the spotlight. She’s a behind-the-scenes person and I’m a spotlight person. I think that dichotomy highlights how we can bring this thing together. It’s fantastic.”
Both feel passionate about their shared effort and strive for the work and documentation of the genre to stand on its own. This deep-seated desire led Clara Rose not to use her last name for this project.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want it to be viewed as a family project, or worse, I didn’t want people to think I was using my dad’s last name to springboard me professionally,” she said. “I really don’t like looking like I’m feeding off of what he’s accomplished.”
Keen takes pride in her drive to stand on her own two feet.
Their mutual respect allows both of them to create something new that neither of them could accomplish on their own.