There’s a moment during Thursday’s superb tribute to John Prine in which Bill Murray holds up a framed photo of himself singing with Prine and the bluegrass band the SteelDrivers onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. “This is about as jazzed-up as I ever got,” he says, the joy tied to the memory apparent on his face. But when Murray, who’s wearing a pink floral shirt and sombrero, glances down at the photograph, he turns sad, suddenly aware that such magical, only-in-Prine’s-presence moments are now gone.
That type of conflicted emotion permeates the remembrances and performances of Picture Show: A Tribute Celebrating John Prine, an all-star salute to the songwriter, who died in April at 73 from complications related to COVID-19. As artists like Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, Kacey Musgraves, Bonnie Raitt, Margo Price, and Sturgill Simpson, introduced by Murray, sing Prine’s songs, you’re left both elated and crushed — as well as angry that such an American treasure had to die unnecessarily from a mismanaged virus.
While many of the performances are shot at home or outside — there’s a quirky lo-fi one by Kurt Vile that combines both — some dare to venture out to places in Nashville that were meaningful to Prine. Isbell and Shires sing “Hello in There” at the Ryman Auditorium, Eric Church performs “She Is My Everything” at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Price and Jeremy Ivey offer a beautiful “All the Best” inside Grimey’s record shop, on whose walls a Prine mural is painted.
There are also previously unseen interviews with Prine himself, who recalls his love of wasting time, his dream of becoming a stable boy at the racetrack, and what makes “good meatloaf and bad meatloaf.” Meatloaf was serious business to Prine, who was known for finding the simple joys in his surprisingly ordinary life. At one point, he’s asked about “the code to live the John Prine way.” “You have to keep a low, low profile,” he answers.
The connective tissue of Picture Show, however, is “When I Get to Heaven,” off Prine’s final album, The Tree of Forgiveness. His widow Fiona Whelan Prine admits being horrified and curious when she first saw the title. But when “I heard the song in its entirety, it was then truly overwhelming,” she says. “Because he laid out in that little song his complete set of beliefs.” Namely, that Prine believed in God and that he’d meet him in heaven. We should all be so lucky.
Let this be your heads-up: Picture Show: A Tribute Celebrating John Prine streams on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch through Sunday night. After that, it’s gone forever, like a Handsome Johnny on a summer day.