John Prine benefit show has deep family roots

Joel Oliphint
Ryan Stolte-Sawa of Mery Steel

Ryan Stolte-Sawa grew up listening to the music of legendary songwriter John Prine, but her relationship to his music came primarily through playing Prine’s songs with her dad.

“I've been playing music with my dad my whole life, and he's a huge John Prine fan. We mostly do covers, and John Prine has been part of our repertoire the whole time. Those are the first songs that we ever played together,” said Stolte-Sawa, who often got roped into accompanying her dad over the holidays or after dinner parties. “Some friends or family would be over, and my dad's got the guitar out, and he would tell me to get my violin, and I would begrudgingly go get my violin. Then we'd play ‘Clocks and Spoons’ or ‘Christmas in Prison’ or ‘Souvenirs’ for friends and family. After the first song or two, I'd get kinda into it and then I wouldn't want to stop.”

“As a teenager you can't ever really let on to your parents that you like them that much, you know? Definitely not in public,” she continued. “But the thing that keeps me coming back to John Prine’s music is this relationship with my dad and this thing that we share.”

Building on that shared love, Stolte-Sawa and her father, Rick Sawa, organized a tribute night, “Diamonds in the Rough: Songs of John Prine,” at Rambling House on Saturday, Jan. 4. Stolte-Sawa will perform alongside Charlie Smith, billed as Mery Steel & Family Man, and then again with her dad, billed as Rick & Ryan (Mery Steel is Stolte-Sawa’s primary musical outlet). They’ll be joined by Adam Remnant, Johnny Newman, Glenn Davis, Nick D’Andrea and others.

Neither Stolte-Sawa nor her dad were looking to make money from the gig, so they reached out to Prine’s people to see if the songwriter had a preferred charity. Prine, it turns out, recently released a 7-inch single, “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” and donated the proceeds to the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC), a nonprofit law firm that represents coal miners and their families on issues of black lung and mine safety.

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Stolte-Sawa and her dad are following Prine’s example and donating all proceeds (minus bar sales) to the ACLC, and for the first hour of the night, they’re holding an open mic, during which any musician can donate $2 to play a John Prine song of their choice.

No matter what Prine has written about in his decades-long career, there’s something about the songs that resonates in a personal way, Stolte-Sawa said, regardless of any family connection. “He's able to write in a way that really makes you feel like you're experiencing those things,” she said. “It's very relatable songwriting.”

Rambling House

7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 4

310 E. Hudson St., North Campus

Diamonds in the Rough: Songs of John Prine