Don’t remember the supergroup the Buzzin’ Cousins? You’re not alone. Despite featuring five architects of Americana music, the collaboration remains a blind spot for most music fans, even those who may be hardcore devotees of the artists involved.
And what a group of names they were: John Mellencamp, Dwight Yoakam, Joe Ely, James McMurtry, and John Prine made up the Buzzin’ Cousins, Mellencamp’s lark of an answer to the Travelin’ Wilburys. The band’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-them status was by design, Mellencamp said.
”I wouldn’t expect an album or anything,” he told the Chicago Tribune at the time. ”It really was a one-shot deal.”
In 1992, Mellencamp made his acting and directorial debut in the film Falling From Grace, a drama that cast the Midwestern singer as a country-music star who gets caught up in a Jerry Springer-level of family drama during a trip home to Indiana. Naturally, a film about a singer needed a reputable soundtrack, and Mellencamp and his guitarist Mike Wanchic produced a doozy, pairing two of his own songs with tracks by Nanci Griffith, Dwight Yoakam, and Mellencamp bandmates Larry Crane and Lisa Germano.
For his solo contribution, Prine provided an alternate version of “All the Best,” off 1991’s The Missing Years, with Mellencamp’s group backing him up. It’s an eyebrow-raising update of the original ballad, punctuated by loud electric guitar and Kenny Aronoff’s pounding drums. Prine even had a bit part in the movie itself — catch a glimpse of him in the trailer, greeting Mellencamp’s Bud Parks at the airport.
But it’s the Buzzin’ Cousins entry, written by Mellencamp, that stands as the centerpiece of the Falling From Grace soundtrack. “Sweet Suzanne” is an intoxicating shot of heartland jangle-rock, with all five of the artists — each in their idiosyncratic vocal style — trading lines. Released as a single to country radio, the song ended up nominated for the 1992 CMA Award for Vocal Event of the Year. It lost to Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt’s “This One’s Gonna Hurt You (For a Long, Long Time).”
McMurtry, who was recording his own album Candyland at the time, recalls “Sweet Suzanne” as a Mellencamp outtake from either The Lonesome Jubilee or Big Daddy sessions. He remembers traveling to Indiana to sing on the track with the group — but thanks to some Prine mischief, that’s about it.
“They put us up at the Best Western in Bloomington, Indiana, which is off the highway that goes to John’s studio,” McMurtry tells Rolling Stone in an email. “Not long after I checked in, there was a knock on my door. I opened the door and there was John Prine and Joe Ely. Prine had a half-empty pint bottle of vodka in his hand and a big grin on his face. I don’t remember what happened after that.”
Prine died Tuesday in Nashville due to complications related to COVID-19. Mellencamp likened the loss of his Buzzin’ Cousins collaborator and costar to “losing Moses.” “He stood on top of the hill and he gave us words of wisdom and truth,” Mellencamp said on social media. “John Prine’s name is written in the stars.”