Victoria-raised musician remembers playing with John Prine: ‘I felt beyond lucky’

A succession of sold-out shows in Victoria at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall and the Royal Theatre from 2005 through 2016 made John Prine something of a legend around these parts.

By his side for a number of those was Kendel Carson, the Calgary-born, Victoria-raised singer and fiddler. She played more than two dozen concerts across North America with the revered Chicago songwriter, and remembered him with fondness on Wednesday following his death Tuesday of complications from COVID-19.

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“Every time I got the chance to see him, I felt beyond lucky,” Carson said of the 73-year-old Prine, whom she met in 2008. “It just feels like such a loss for everybody.”

Carson came into Prine’s world through her collaborations with Chip Taylor, who authored songs recorded by the Troggs (Wild Thing) and Merrilee Rush (Angel of the Morning), among others. Taylor was the opening act for one of Prine’s shows in New Jersey when Carson was asked by Prine if she wanted to come up and sing on his 1971 gem, Paradise. “It remains one of my favourite memories,” she said.

“I was pretty shy and excited when John gave me a look like: ‘Do you want to take one?’ So I played a solo, and he just started to grin. And when I finished the first round, he goes: ‘Take another one!’ He let me do probably four in a row, and for each one we were just grinning at each other.”

Carson and Prine’s initial collaboration led to a number of shows and tours over the next decade-and-a-half, including a sold-out stop at the Royal Theatre in 2016. During her tours with Prine, Carson would open each show before being called up for a duet with Prine on three songs — Paradise, In Spite of Ourselves and The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.

Video of these shows is readily available on YouTube, and during each performance both Carson and Prine appear to be having the times of their lives. “Whenever you have that connection musically with somebody, it lights you up,” she said. “That’s why we do it. A bunch of my favourite road memories are from John Prine tours.”

Carson, who recently moved to Lake Cowichan, has been a member of both the Paperboys and Spirit of the West, and is currently a key cog in a band led by former Great Big Sea frontman Alan Doyle. Due to her other commitments, tours with Prine were sporadic, but nothing short of memorable, she said.

“I had cake and ice cream for dinner last night, because that’s what we had after most of his shows. He loved touring because no one could tell him that he couldn’t eat cake and ice cream after the show. There was nobody like him.”

Her sadness over his death likely wouldn’t dissipate any time soon, she said. A career in music can often be a lonely, travel-heavy existence, with little resembling an emotional connection during the course of a day. But Prine made every moment count, whether you were in his band or a member of the audience. He was an everyman and living legend all at once.

“Anyone that got to see him live walked away realizing that the stories in between the songs, you came for that as much as you came for the music,” Carson said. “That’s the thing that you only got in the show. What he would choose to share was just absolute gold.

“We are so lucky that we lived in a world that had John Prine in it. And we are even luckier that he left us his songs. That’s the one thing I can sort of hold onto right now. We have these songs forever, and they’ve gotten so many of us through so much already. And their meanings are going to change even more now.”

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