All the Best: Local Musicians Honor John Prine

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Jeff Sweatman sang two of the songs on the John Prine tribute album, with musician friends contributing the guitar tracks. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Solo performers as well as musicians from area bands have collaborated on a double album honoring beloved artist John Prine and supporting fellow musicians hard-hit by the pandemic. The genius behind the effort is Jeff Sweatman, a Crozet resident who used his time as a laid-off radio program director to conceive, produce and deliver a tribute album pressed in vinyl. 

In April 2020, Sweatman had been struck by a triple whammy. Laid off from his job as program director for WCNR 106.1 (The Corner), he was at his Grayrock home, taking odd jobs and trying to keep a few things going while helping his son learn from home, while his wife, a teacher at Henley, taught her students, also from home. Sweatman created “Radio Friendly Unit Shifters!” a podcast devoted to insider radio stories and music. Then, when Prine died, it was a reminder of the greater horrors of the pandemic, Sweatman said.

In his extensive radio career, Sweatman interviewed many nationally known artists. At WCNR, he adapted the programming to support deserving local musicians as well, and he met many of them in his 13 years there. He tried to keep up with how they were doing in the months after he left the station.

“I saw that two of them, Koda Kerl from Chamomile and Whiskey, and Kai Crowe-Getty from Lord Nelson, released covers of Prine songs soon after his death,” Sweatman said. “It gave me the idea to put together an album of his songs and donate any profits to New City Arts.” That Charlottesville non-profit supported artists suffering from the major disruption in income caused by the several rounds of Covid. One benefit of the time at home: “Those who could manage it worked on improving their home recording capabilities,” Sweatman said. That worked in his favor, and most of the recordings sent to him by contributors were high-quality and ready for the final master.

Some contributors had a song in mind, but for the most part, Sweatman assigned songs. “I think people were grateful for that,” he said. “Once you look at Prine’s body of work, it’s pretty overwhelming.” He himself chose a couple of songs to sing, with musician friends supplying the guitar tracks.

The artwork for the album, plus its rendering in orange vinyl (a nod to Prine’s song, Bruised Orange) was all done locally. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Sweatman had always wanted to be a music producer and was accustomed to producing small bits for radio. The logistics of producing an album with dozens of contributors during a pandemic was a challenging effort, though. “Luckily, Blue Sprocket in Harrisonburg is close by, and I also wanted to support them.” The growing interest in vinyl by major artists as well as consumers, plus the challenges of the pandemic, stretched the production schedule from nine weeks to nine months. 

There were other considerations, too. He needed to figure out the graphic design and the artwork, create the album notes, have the songs mastered by a professional engineer, and seek funds for all of this through a “Go Fund Me” campaign. Everyone came through when he needed them: professional friends who also turned out to be artists and photographers and an old radio associate who had established a studio in North Carolina and did the mastering. 

The album, “All The Best…From 6 Feet Away,” is an aesthetic masterpiece itself in marbled orange vinyl and sandwiched between the work of local visual artists. It was delivered to Crozet in April, and has already sold more than half its inventory. Sweatman is planning a release party in October at the Front Porch, and he thinks most of the artists involved in the album will perform the songs they covered. The proceeds will benefit The Front Porch’s Roots & Wings Program as well as the costs of the digital-streaming release of the album, something that will happen once all the vinyl has sold. Sweatman plans to be at Fridays After 5 on August 26 with the L.P., or find it on GoFundMe by searching for “John Prine Tribute.”

There were other reasons––besides his admiration of Prine––for Sweatman to take on the massive project. He believes that Charlottesville and Central Virginia are in the midst of a particularly dynamic period for local music, an observation he’s able to make after more than a decade of being in the middle of it. He noted some compilations: two recent books of photography by Rich Tarbell documenting local musical history, and the regional music samplers he helped create while still at WCNR. And, he said, he hoped the project would be a shot in the arm for home-bound musicians. “[It gave] all of the people involved in it some kind of concrete thing to look forward to as we made our way through the uncertainty of the pandemic.”

Sweatman was already a fan of John Prine, but was still surprised at the depth of the musician’s professional accomplishments, once he started the project and listened systematically to all Prine’s albums. He was touched by the deep-seated affection musicians of different generations harbored for the songwriter-singer. “He never had a real hit single,” Sweatman said. “You had to kind of seek him out. In my experience, you either revere him or have never heard of him.”

Why Prine’s enduring popularity? Sweatman particularly likes “Spanish Pipe Dream” and “Only Love,” both love songs—one upbeat and funny, the other unabashedly sweet. It’s because Prine could sing about anything, he said.  “With few words, he could tell the saddest story. And then, some humor would come to the surface. He was an observer of the human condition.” 

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