FARGO — John Prine’s death on April 7 deeply shook many in the music world.
For fans that were old enough, the singer-songwriter was in steady rotation from his self-titled debut album in 1971, an album that produced gems like “Paradise,” “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There.” For newer fans, he was an influence on some of today’s best singer-songwriters, like Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Dan Auerbach, all of whom contributed to Prine’s last CD, 2018’s Grammy-nominated “Tree of Forgiveness.”
To all, he was one of the first celebrity deaths due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
For Jade Nielsen, the artist’s death hit particularly close to home. Not only is the founder and president of the event promotions company Jade Presents a fan, having worked with Prine dozens of times over the past 20 years, the two became friends.
“He was one of those people, a genuinely caring guy,” Nielsen says of the acclaimed artist.
Nielsen was so struck by Prine’s death, in a rare move he opened up on the Jade Presents Facebook page on April 19, sharing his thoughts on his late friend.
“John Prine died on April 7, 2020. My 10-year-old son asked if April 7th would always be John Prine Day. I told him it should be,” Nielsen wrote.
“I drug my feet on writing that,” he later explained. “The night (PBS) replayed his ‘Austin City Limits’ set, I was drinking a little bit of bourbon and thought, ‘I’m gonna write.’”
While he’s been a fixture on the regional music scene since the early 1990s, Nielsen has chosen to keep a low profile.
“I like being in the background, not putting my own feelings or thoughts out there,” he says.
His personal Facebook account lists six friends — one is his wife and another is one of his sons. He doesn’t appear to post on his personal page, and one of his last posts on the company page was to eulogize his longtime friend and co-worker, Steve Hanson, in 2018. Similarly, he hasn’t tweeted since 2012, and his Instagram account is mostly pictures of and from his motorcycles.
In his Prine post, Nielsen explained how in 1997, as a “hobby concert promoter for 6 years,” Prine’s agent reached out to him about booking a show in Fargo. Until then, Nielsen had mostly done indie rock shows at Fargo-Moorhead's Ralph’s Corner and Playmakers Pavilion.
Nielsen, 25 at the time, didn’t know much about Prine, but after being encouraged by Tom Tepley of Discontent — then Disc & Tape — he booked the show at the Fargo Theatre.
“I didn’t know a lot about him. I’m still learning things about him,” Nielsen recalls. “I was risking my own money and I did not have a lot of money to risk.”
The show packed the Fargo Theatre and Nielsen estimates Prine walked away with $6,000.
“It was probably the least amount he made on that tour,” he says.
In addition to it being a financial success, it was an eye- and ear-opener for the young promoter, an indication that he should broaden his scope when it came to booking shows. After that, he booked artists like Arlo Guthrie and Leo Kottke.
“Also, it was one of the pivotal times in my early career where I fell in love with a performer — and that love never left,” Nielsen wrote.
So when Prine came back through a few years later, Nielsen didn’t blink at booking a return visit to the Fargo Theatre and fans didn’t blink at snatching up the tickets. Prine’s last local show was at Moorhead's Bluestem in 2015, selling about 1,800 seats, or double what those Fargo Theatre shows did.
Around 2000, Nielsen was asked to book a string of dates and go on the road with Prine to ensure things went smoothly. For the next five or so years, Nielsen and Prine traveled from Alaska to Florida, Ontario to Hawaii, and about 30 spots in between.
Their friendship took a new shape on the road as Prine, Nielsen and one or two other people would often pack into a car and drive on to the next show. In the car, Prine was just another guy, chatting up the others, occasionally talking politics but more often talking about his kids and always looking for a Dairy Queen break.
“I’ll never forget the Dairy Queens,” Nielsen says with a laugh.
Prine may have been a star, but he didn’t have extravagant tastes. When in Fargo he dined at the King House Buffet and after shows, his rider insisted on enchiladas.
The latter inspired Jade Presents to partner with Fargo Brewing Co., of which Nielsen is a partner, and Maria’s HomeStyle Mexican Food to present an at-home dinner concert this Saturday, May 16.
Prine & Dine includes a tray of six ready-to-heat shredded beef enchiladas and a mixed six-pack from Fargo Brewing available for home delivery or pickup. The main event is a viewing party at 7 p.m. featuring local musicians covering the singer from their homes, including Tom Peckskamp, Gina Powers, Nathan Pitcher, Jessica Vines, Pat Lenertz, The Cropdusters, Tucker’d Out, David Allen, Rob Ashe and more.
Nielsen will talk about his relationship with the singer between some sets, as will his business partner, Aaron Duma. Last fall, Nielsen, his wife Jamie, Duma and his wife Emily traveled to the Dominican Republic to see Prine’s All the Best festival. It would be one of the singer’s last shows.
The Nielsens first vacation together was in 2003, traveling to Florida to see a Prine show.
“The one thing I’ll say about John, people use the word timeless, that’s true,” Nielsen says. “In so many ways, ‘Tree of Forgiveness’ could’ve been released in the 1970s. It’s truly timeless.”
His voice still had that incredible character to it,” Nielsen continued. “John could tell a story that’s both hopeful and sad in the same sentence. It’s a songwriting talent that’s a gift, not something you learn.”