Kurt Vile was sitting in the Butcher Shoppe studio in Nashville last December when he floated a pipe-dream idea to producer Dave Ferguson. Vile was slated to perform at the Grand Ole Opry with his hero John Prine two nights later and asked if Ferguson would call the songwriting legend and ask if he felt like dropping by the studio.
“Ferg was like, ‘What are you doing, Prine?’” Vile recalls. “Prine was like, ‘I’m watching the game!’”
Vile was astounded when, later that evening, after finishing his game, Prine showed up at the Butcher Shoppe. That night, Vile and Prine recorded a touching duet of the latter’s “How Lucky,” one of five tracks that will be included on Speed, Sound, Lonely, Vile’s new EP due next month. Named after Vile’s cover of Prine’s “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” and produced by Ferguson, the release represents Vile’s fullest foray into rootsy finger-picking and his first-ever recording in Nashville, with help from veterans like Pat McLaughlin (“a real fucking firecracker,” Vile says approvingly), Kenny Malone, and Dan Auerbach.
Coming just six months after Prine’s death in April, Speed, Sound, Lonely serves as a posthumous tribute to one of Vile’s less obvious songwriting heroes. “It breaks my heart, more all the time,” Vile says of Prine’s death. “It’s perfect timing to put this album out because there’s elements of that acoustic thing in all my records.” In addition to the two Prine covers, Speed, Sound, Lonely also includes two Vile originals (“Pearls” and “Dandelions”), as well as a cover of “Gone Girl” by Cowboy Jack Clement, the late producer with whom Ferguson worked closely.
The origins of Speed, Sound, Lonely go back more than four years, when Vile asked his friend, guitarist Matt Sweeney, to be introduced to the circle of Nashville legends that Sweeney met through his mid-2000s work on Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around.
“I was getting pretty deep into country, and obsessed with Prine, and I saw [Sweeney] had been playing with Prine and all these things, so I was like, ‘How the hell are you playing with all these people?” Vile says, joined on a recent three-way Zoom call by Sweeney and Ferguson.
Sweeney introduced Ferguson and Vile, who had an early discussion about making a record. “[Ferg] said a couple of things that got me excited,” Vile says of that introductory conversation. “I was like, ‘I want to do a cover of ‘The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.’ You know that song?’ And he said, ‘Oh, inside and out, Kurt.’ Then I said, I love the Cowboy Jack documentary, Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan, especially the scenes where Johnny Cash is smoking cigarettes at A.P. Carter’s grave.’ And Ferg said, ‘Oh yeah, Kurt, I filmed that.’”
“Prine really liked Kurt,” says Ferguson. “Every son of a bitch wanted Prine to come in and sing a song with him, but he really did like Kurt. Kurt’s got that same kind of slant on him that Prine does, it’s fucking high art, man. And Prine was totally into that.”
The EP was recorded in three separate sessions, with Ferguson bringing in his cast of Nashville legends to accompany the Philadelphia rocker.
“Ferg can move really quickly, have a really good idea, and then execute it,” says Sweeney, who played guitar on two tracks. “The idea will be something unimaginable, like, ‘Let’s get John Prine down here.’ It’s spontaneity mixed with execution at a fucking high level, and then it’s also really well-recorded.”
Although he’s best known for his sardonic shaggy-dog indie rock, Kurt Vile has increasingly become interested in classic country music in recent years. On his most recent album, he covered the late-Seventies Charlie Rich song “Rollin’ With The Flow,” and he also befriended West Texas cult country legend Terry Allen. During the Zoom call, Vile sits in front of a large Charley Pride poster that is hung on the refrigerator in his Philadelphia home.
Vile first began listening to John Prine in his early twenties, when, returning to Philly after spending several years in Boston writing “finger-picking songs,” Vile and War on Drugs leader Adam Granduciel debuted Vile’s rootsy tunes one night at a show with his cousin’s Americana band in Reading, Pennsylvania. After the show, a fan approached Vile and told him he sounded like a songwriter named John Prine. That comment sent Vile on a journey, spending “one cool summer” diving deep into Prine’s greatest hits collection. “The heartbreakers hit you first,” he says, “but from then on out it got deeper all the time.”
In recent years, Vile had become even more obsessed with Prine, delving into all eras of his catalog (“Fair & Square might be the masterpiece”) and showing up to sing with Prine in Philadelphia.
So when Vile finally sat alongside Prine in a studio this past December, learning from his hero how to play ‘How Lucky,” it was, he would later say, “probably the single most special musical moment in my life.”
“I was floating and flying,” Vile writes in the liner notes to Speed, Sound, Lonely, “and I couldn’t hear anything he told me.”
Ferguson, who engineered some of Prine’s Nineties records (In Spite of Ourselves, A John Prine Christmas), warmly recalls his final session with Prine, which was also one of the last times the beloved songwriter was ever in a recording studio.
“John can put a smile into the sound of his voice, and it’s this uplifting thing,” says Ferguson. “I think this cut captured that part of personality really well. It sounds like he’s smiling the whole time he’s singing. It was one of his great traits, to be able to sound painless and effortless. He and Kurt made a really nice little cut there. I’m proud of it. I hope Kurt’s proud of it. Are you proud of it, Kurt?”
Vile smiles from his Zoom window.
“I’m proud as hell of it,” he says.