If there was any question about whether Tommy Prine would address the spirit of his late father, John Prine, on his debut album, This Far South, it’s answered handily on the record’s fifth track, “By the Way.” Being the child of Americana royalty isn’t easy when your life’s aspiration is to follow his path; three years after his passing, John still casts a mighty shadow over country-folk music, and by default, Tommy, too. Stepping out of it must feel like a Sisyphean task.
That the junior Prine succeeds without fumbling is remarkable, but directly invoking John in the doing just reinforces the achievement. On “By the Way,” the younger Prine strips away John’s legend and lets his audience know him instead as “dad.” Nothing cuts to the bone of grief’s everlasting character the way a line like “By the way, people say I look just like you,” the kicker to the song’s chorus, does. Guitars tinkle, bass drums rumble, piano keys echo Prine’s heartache.
Like every track on This Far South, “By the Way” is motivated by personal experiences on a level that other tributes simply can’t be. It’s where Prine opens up the most about his whole life, from boyhood to manhood. At the same time, the road on Prine’s journey has had plenty of other bumps to smooth out in song, which makes up This Far South’s context and purpose: Getting better and getting by the singer’s share of bereavement.
“Elohim” kicks the record off as a functional introduction to Prine as his own man, not just a son with a famous name; it’s a country alt-rock platform for his ideology, which is surprisingly pragmatic considering the troubles the world’s heaped on his shoulders: A dead parent, dead friends, addiction, crippling self-doubt, all blown away by buzzing power chords and hissing cymbals. But Prine identifies as a man of self-reflection, and not of God: “That there’s a man in the sky / With long hair and big blue eyes,” Prine sings on “Elohim”’s opening verse, “If that’s the case, then I’d rather be / A disciple of my memories.”
The pain of loss, captured on later tracks like “Some Things,” “Letter to My Brother,” and “Reach the Sun,” is preferable to worship of a higher power, in other words, and this belief keeps This Far South firmly grounded on this Earth. Prine’s sensibilities toe a solemn line; joy becomes a hot commodity amid this much mournful material. But the joy is there, on tracks like mid-album pop-punk-adjacent banger “Mirror and a Kitchen Sink,” boasting an upbeat tempo and tongue-in-cheek imagery of Prine arguing with himself about, frankly, nonsense. Maybe This Far South is elegiac at its core, but if the record performs a funeral for John, at least it’s the kind where everyone, Prine especially, gets to let loose and celebrate lives lived, not just lives lost.
Tommy Prine’s This Far South is out June 23 via Thirty Tigers.