For the 73-year-old legendary country singer, John Prine, there’s nothing to be cranky about these days. He is leaving a quieter life with the love of his life. John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan has been by his side for almost three decades now.
How did Fiona grapple with John’s eventful life and career as a country and folk singer?
The Ireland Native Fiona Whelan
Fiona Whelan was born on August 4, 1947, in Ireland, Europe. Her father was a businessman and her mother was a homemaker. Her father died when she was just 13, leaving her mother and five other siblings. Unfortunately, her mother had no resources and Fiona was the oldest.
She worked as a recording-studio business manager in Dublin. In 1988, he met John Prine at an after-party at Blooms Hotel in Dublin, where John was on tour. “I was at this bar trying to get a drink, and I was 14 people back,” John said.
“I had my guitar with me. I couldn’t get to the front, so I went around to the other side. And there was this Irish actress at the end—she said to me, ‘C’mere, John Prine, there’s someone I want you to meet.’ It was Fiona. Fiona said, ‘I saw you play when I was 17. When will I hear you next?’ And I said, ‘Right now,’ and walked up on stage with her and just started playing. And oh yeah, it was love at first sight.”
They kept in touch for years before she left Ireland for Nashville in 1993. Fiona was so fired up about coming to America.
“I understand the poverty that came out of that. My mother had no resources. And then I understand displacement. But we had no idea the isolation I would feel and the difficulty it would be to keep in touch with my family in Ireland,” Fiona explained.
“I’m a late bloomer. I have a wonderful family, I used to work in the music business in Ireland, I have a son who came with me here that John subsequently adopted. I became connected to who I was in America. I’ve uncovered myself more than recovered.”
The couple tied the knot at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Nashville and it wasn’t exactly your traditional wedding. John belted out medley songs at his wedding including Paradise and Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody. Afterward, the party moved to the city’s Hermitage Hotel where guests included Irish pop singer Maura O’Connell, singer Nanci Griffith, and John’s opening act, Heather Eatman.
John admits he was basically a child himself back then. All that changed when he met Fiona. “There were a lot of things stacked against us,” John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan said, “He was on the road and had been through two marriages.”
“I was a high risk,” John said, referring to his wild years before meeting Fiona. But in the year 1994, the couple welcomed their son, Jack, to the world. Tommy followed the next year, and John also adopted another son, Jody, from Fiona’s previous relationship.
“It put my feet right on the ground,” John said. “I didn’t know that I was missing that until I found it. All of a sudden I felt normal with a capital N. I didn’t realize it, but it was something that I was striving for after years and years of being a total daydreamer.”
However, their honeymoon stage ended early in 1996 when John visited a doctor about a lump on his neck. He’d been shaving around it for a while, thinking it was a blood vessel; however, it turned out to be a stage-three neck cancer. John was startled. “I felt fine,” he said. “It doesn’t hit you until you pull up to the hospital and you see ‘cancer’ in big letters, and you’re the patient. Then it all kind of comes home.”
John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan, said, “I immediately thought, ‘Well, that means he’s gonna die.’ I had just had two kids, gotten married, had moved from Ireland. It was a lot.”
Luckily, John’s neck surgery to remove a cancerous tumor was successful. He then endured six weeks of radiation therapy. A year later, John wrote a letter to his fans that was characteristically honest and candid.
“It’s been almost a year since the surgery and radiation and I’m feelin’ great. Actually a whole lot better than I’ve felt in a long time,” the letter read. “I feel strong enough to resume touring and getting back to work again. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road and singing my songs. Hopefully, my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders.”
“It sounds a little cliché, or Pollyannaish,” John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan said. “But John and I don’t laugh at this: That neck is proof there is a God. That neck is the hand of God, because it gave him more than was taken away. Not to say it wasn’t hard. It was very hard for him.”
Fiona Whelan as John Prine’s Manager
When John Prine created Oh Boy Records in 1983, all he ever wanted was to be free to make his music the way he heard it. He established it with his manager Al Bunetta and their friend Dan Einstein. However, his longtime manager Al Bunetta died in 2015 and country star turned his fiercely independent Oh Boy Records into an actual family business.
John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan, stepped into a true management role – and quickly assessed the situation. Fiona definitely has a keen mind for business. In addition to giving pieces of advice to John regarding the large frame issues, she moved to consolidate the business in the hands of the people closest to the iconic songwriter.
She has recruited John’s son Jody Whelan, who’d been running a company in a completely different industry, as the Operations Manager. Fiona knows best as Jody brought his business sense to Oh Boy and began assessing the strengths of the catalog, the artist and his impact. Jody was able to increase the focus on social media, streaming and catalog development, at the same time started reaching out to younger artists who’d been influenced by John. The combination and modernization of delivery systems have welcomed a new generation of fans.
“Well, I lost my long-time manager and business partner [Al Bunetta] about three years ago,” John said. “He got ill and died eight days later, and we’d been together since 1971. He also ran my record company and we did everything together, so when he died it was a case of do we continue or sell it or what? So Fiona stepped in and started managing me and Jody came and ran the record company.
They run John’s independent record label, Oh Boy, out of a home they converted into an office. And indeed, behind every successful man is his woman, pushing him to his limits.
In 2016, John received the prestigious PEN Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. The award is presented every two years by the writers’ group PEN New England.
To capitalize on all the recent attention, John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan convinced him to record For Better or Worse, a country covers album on which he sings with fans like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Amanda Shires. John said he’s received three book-deal offers in the past year alone. “We’ve heard from all the big publishers,” he said. “I think I’ll wait a little bit. Till I make my big comeback.”
Finally, in 2013, John released The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new material in 13 years. The songs that became The Tree of Forgiveness started their lives jotted down in pieces and parts on yellow legal pads. John finally finished several of them at a downtown Nashville hotel last summer.
Prine has a perfectly nice house in Nashville, but John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan and son and label head Jody Whelan decided the singer-songwriter would be more productive if they booked him a suite. “They know that I work better out of a hotel, after 45 years on the road,” he said.
“I’m a wife, and I’m very protective of his time and of making sure that he gets his rest,” Fiona said. “And then I’m also his manager and I’m pushing him: ‘No, John, I really think we need to do this.’ That can be difficult, but I think we do OK. That fact that we’ve been together so long, I think, helps. We’re not afraid of each other at this point, so we can push and shove and be OK at the end of the day.”
“The Tree of Forgiveness,” the highest-charting album of John’s career, proves the songwriter is alive and kicking. But did you know that John is still averse to be a superstar?
John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan revealed, “I couldn’t understand why he was so reluctant to be the superstar that I think he is, that I know he is, that his fans know he is. But now I do.”
And when she was asked what could be that reason she thinks she knows?
“He wants to be able to go to Krogers in his dirty black T-shirt!” she laughed.
Fiona Whelan and Thistle Farms
In 2004, John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan became involved with Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is an organization that employs residents and graduates of Magdalene, a Nashville-based residential program for survivors of prostitution, human trafficking, addiction and streets with dead ends. They manufacture and distribute natural bath and body products, available in more than 200 stores nationwide.
Fiona actually learned about it through her son Tommy, who became great friends with Caney Hummon, the son of Thistle Farms founder Becca Stevens.
“This appeals to me on many levels. These are women who are recovering from very many things. The fact that many of them came off the streets drug-addicted is part of their story, but not the whole story. I have connected with them my own journey of recovery from childhood trauma, my own alcohol abuse and the rest of it. It was a no-brainer,” Fiona revealed.
“And the fact it is all-woman focused was appealing to me. When I came here I had no family. Essentially it was John and the family we built together. Once John’s mother died there was nobody else here.”
In 2017, Fiona was named Thistle Farmer of the Year for her support of the organization during the “Love Letters: Thistle Farms Turns 20″ at the Ryman Auditorium Thistle Farms where the Thistle Farms supporters and graduates gathered. It was a 90-minute benefit show to honor Thistle Farms’ past while celebrating its bright future. And the show’s first performer was no other than the legendary singer-songwriter, John Prine.
“I’ve learned that, without exception, all of these women coming in off the streets were sexually abused as children,” Fiona said. “They were raised in addictive homes. A lot of them suffered physical and emotional abuse. That’s a very typical story. My story doesn’t cleanly dovetail into that.”
John Prine’s Wife Fiona Whelan definitely knows a few things about turning the page.