Sugar Britches Brings John Prine Tribute to Four Mile Historic Park | Westword

Bask in the Music of John Prine at Four Mile Historic Park

Fort Collins honky-tonk band Sugar Britches is leaning into its John Prine inspirations with a tribute set at Four Mile Historic Park on Wednesday, July 10.
Sugar Britches is inspired by John Prine.
Sugar Britches is inspired by John Prine. Kevin Williams Couch
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Any discussion of American songwriting must include the legendary country-folk singer John Prine. Once called the "Mark Twain of American songwriting” by Rolling Stone, Prine is considered one of the most influential musicians and songwriters of the twentieth century. His songs are pure Americana, sharing stories of joy and pain with a touch of sardonic wit and the calm, comfortable twang of a rural everyman telling stories on the front porch.

For Brian Johanson of Fort Collins honky-tonk band Sugar Britches, Prine is more than just an influence — he’s an inspiration. Prine’s life and career are a piece of American history, with a musical legacy reaching back to folk legend Woody Guthrie. “His life is just such a great story,” Johanson notes — “returning from military service and working as a postman, writing songs in his head while walking his route.” Prine’s untimely death during the pandemic hit Johanson particularly hard, and from the moment he heard the news, he wanted to do something to remember and honor the man and his music.

“That was the musician's death that really got me,” Johanson says, “because I always felt a real connection with him.” So on the fourth anniversary of Prine’s gone-too-soon passing, Sugar Britches and twelve local musicians, whom Johanson calls “a cavalcade of Colorado singers and pickers,” held a tribute at Swing Station in Laporte. “We all sang our favorite songs,” Johanson reflects, “and, of course, the crowd sang along as we celebrated his life. It was really great. Everyone got quiet during the sad songs and everyone was laughing during the silly ones, and that’s exactly the vibe we were going for.”
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Nate Harper
Sugar Britches, known for playing “high-brow honkey tonk” in the vein of Waylon Jennings and ’70s classic country, is not a tribute act or cover band. However, Johanson notes, the band “takes a page from the John Prine notebook, writing sad songs with a funny line or two.” Sugar Britches was joined by a host of music collaborators including Jeff Finlin, a mainstay of the local Americana scene; Sweet Virginia and Erik Lunde, who recently recorded a gospel album together; Zee Crain, who plays fiddle in Sugar Britches, and Joe Schicke of Westside Joe and the Men of Soul. “It was really like a mini-FoCoMX because we had so many people in our community coming out to play, sing and listen," Johanson says. "It’s a testament to how much John’s songs meant to everybody.”

Johanson believes Prine appeals to musicians and fans across genres because “he sings like a man of the people.” The songs can be simple, though his vivid imagery and heartfelt stories encapsulate the struggle for the American dream. Because the songs resonate, performers at the tribute were asked to share personal memories for their chosen song. For Johanson, that song is “All the Best."

“I remember first listening to it after a hard breakup, and he just gets it," Johanson says. "It’s a sad song, about a divorce, but has some really humorous lines, like when he sings, ‘I guess love is like a Christmas card. You decorate a tree, you throw it in the yard. It decays and dies, and the snowmen melt. Well, I once knew love. I knew how love felt.’”

The performers enjoyed the show so much that they wanted to perform again for a new audience. In fact, Johanson says he hopes “to make it a yearly thing to get together and celebrate” a true icon of American music. That opportunity arrived when he was contacted about doing the tribute show in Denver. Swallow Hill Music’s concert director, David Dugan, had attended the Laporte show, and says he “thought it would be a perfect fit for Swallow Hill’s summer concert series, with Prine being such a legendary artist in the folk scene."

"I loved what Sugar Britches did, putting their spin on his music," he adds. "It brought an incredible style to the tribute.”

Sugar Britches will bring its John Prine tribute set to Four Mile Historic Park for a can't-miss concert on Wednesday, July 10. Swallow Hill Music, which has hosted concerts at Four Mile for ten years, wanted something different than the standard summer tour events. So this year it launched a tribute series every Wednesday, featuring seven shows focused on music from such legends as John Denver, the Traveling Wilburys and the Grateful Dead. Dugan believes the shows have been selling well because “it’s a great opportunity to enjoy music and a historic Colorado location.” And Swallow Hill is the ideal host and sponsor, as community outreach and promotion of music communities is an integral part of the organization’s mission.

In addition to being one of the largest acoustic-music schools in the country, Swallow Hill hosts more than 250 concerts on site each year. “We focus a lot on bringing music to the Denver community through schools and other local organizations,” Dugan notes. That includes its partnership with the Denver Botanic Gardens for its summer concert series, as well as the Gardens' Evenings al Fresco, showcasing local acts. “Our goal is not just to offer music concerts,” Dugan adds, “but to create an inclusive, almost homey environment for people while also providing a community surrounded by folk music and music culture.”

Folk music is a fundamental part of Swallow Hill Music’s mission, and folk has a tradition of musicians covering songs over generations. With Prine being such an incredible songwriter, musician and person, Dugan believes “most artists at Swallow Hill would say John Prine is a huge influence and much of the music we hear today wouldn't be possible without him.” For Swallow Hill, the multi-performer format that Johanson and Sugar Britches have created “is a great way to honor the man by getting perspective on what his music means to so many different performers.”

Sugar Britches: A Tribute to John Prine, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 10, Four Mile Historic Park, 715 South Forest Street. Tickets are $20.
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