Like many John Prine fans and friends, Brandi Carlile couldn’t sleep in the wee hours Wednesday morning. She put that insomnia to better use than most by picking up an acoustic guitar and singing a tender rendition of “Summer’s End,” the moving ballad that was a highlight of Prine’s final album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.”
“I’m gonna miss singin’ this one with you John so tonight I’ll sing it to you,” Carlile wrote in a caption for her Instagram posting of the video. “I know you didn’t make it home in the way we all wanted but you made it home. Put in a good word for us. All my love to Fiona.” She signed it, “xoyoursingingpartner.”
The bare hint of a low-burning fire flashes on Carlile’s face, and the sound of her fingers on the guitar neck is nearly as loud as the picking itself. It’s a number that has come to be associated with the ravaging effects on a family of opioid addiction, thanks to a music video that emphasized that theme. But of course Prine’s song is broader than that — it’s a prodigal son song, an anthem of mortality and spirituality, and a celebration of time running out and time eternal… reconciliation on earth, as it is in heaven.
Carlile’s version of the song — which, despite its recent vintage, has already come to feel like one of the classics in Prine’s nearly 50-year canon — upholds the tradition of so many worthy singers who’ve covered Prine, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen material over the years. While nothing could match the feel conveyed by the songwriter himself, it’s moving to hear the melodic turns a virtuosic interpreter can bring out that might’ve felt merely implicit in the sweetly gruffer-voiced original recording.
Besides putting in a backing vocal appearance on his last album, Carlile had sung “Summer’s End” with Prine, along with Shooter Jennings, on Stephen Colbert’s program and again at the Bonnaroo festival. See them sing it together two years ago this month, below.