In 1964, Bruce Rits Gilbert saw The Beatles play at the Milwaukee Arena.
It was the type of show that might have sparked a lifetime of obsession, a sold-out show that opened with “Twist and Shout” and ended with a cover of “Long Tall Sally.” Tickets topped out at about $5, and it was the first and last time that the band ever played in Gilbert’s hometown. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that show fueling a lifetime of Beatlemania for Gilbert.
But Gilbert, 67, escaped mostly unscathed that day (more Beatle-appreciator than maniac). Instead, a musician of a different sort — someone a little quieter, a little weirder, a little funnier and a whole lot more country — caught his attention. From the first time Gilbert heard the singer-songwriter John Prine’s music in 1973, he was hooked.
“I’ve had dalliances with a whole lot of other singer-songwriters and groups and the like,” Gilbert said. “But John Prine has always been my favorite. I’ve seen him a whole lot of times, and he’s just a remarkable musician.”
From Milwaukee to his current home in Penn Valley, and through a decades-long career as a lawyer, a marriage, the task of raising three daughters and now, a pandemic, Gilbert has held Prine close and spread the word about his music far and wide.
During the pandemic, Gilbert started two Prine-related projects: a self-published tribute book called “John Prine: One Song At a Time” that serves as a comprehensive introduction to Prine and his music, and the appropriately-titled John Prine Album Club, where newly isolated family members would gather once a week via Zoom to discuss another Prine record.
“It was a really nice way for us to honor and remember John Prine and his music,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert grew up outside of Milwaukee, and attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison before heading to the now-defunct Antioch School of Law in Washington, D.C. He met his wife, Andrea, the longtime president of Bryn Mawr Hospital, during his undergraduate years, and they’ll celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this August.
Gilbert spent more than 20 years as general counsel for Universal Health Services in King of Prussia, and spent the last few years working for smaller health care startups. As his legal career wound down, Gilbert found himself with lots of time on his hands and energy to fill it; for the first time in his life, he picked up a guitar, and along with a few friends and musicians he’s met over the years, he records and performs as Boo Rits and The Missing Years.
For Gilbert, Prine’s music — 18 studio albums, five live recordings, two compilations and one video album — has served as a mile marker for his own life. In the spring semester of 1973, he heard Prine’s self-titled album for the first time, “which includes some of the best songs ever written,” Gilbert writes in the introduction to his book. As he raised his three daughters, Molly, Emily and Casey, he instilled in them an appreciation for Prine and what he sang about, to the extent that a father can. Now that he’s mostly retired, the inspiration he’s gotten from Prine is what keeps him hard at work writing and recording new music.
And when Prine died at 73 last spring, felled by COVID-19, the totality of his output weighed on Gilbert. How could he express the loss that he felt, the pain that he experienced on April 7, 2020 when news of Prine’s death hit his phone? “It hit me as if a dear friend had died,” Gilbert recalls. To process Prine’s death and keep his extended family connected, Gilbert started the Album Club.
Beginning the next week, Gilbert and his wife began weekly calls with their daughters, a few nephews and other extended family members. They would go album by album, song by song, and everyone would have a chance to talk about what the music meant to them.
Molly Gilbert Zulauf, Gilbert’s eldest daughter, would call from Seattle to talk about the songs that had been “the soundtrack of my youth,” she said. Each week was another mini-education and discussion, and with the family reconvened, everyone would fall back into their familiar roles. When Gilbert started telling everyone about the music he was recording, too, Gilbert Zulauf knew that it was only a natural progression.
“I never really thought he would turn into much more than a hobby, but I guess I should have known better, because my dad, when he does something, he really commits,” she said.
Nicholas Gunty, part of a band called Frances Luke Accord, helps produce the songs for Boo Rits and The Missing Years, and became closer with Gilbert as he gave notes on “John Prine: One Song At a Time.” Gilbert’s energy and creativity, he said, were infectious.
“He doesn’t sound like a senior,” Gunty laughed. “He doesn’t sound like an old person. He sounds younger than his age.”
The album-writing and recording process has been long, and Gilbert is hoping to release it this June. It’s a family affair; all three of his daughters and his granddaughter, Jane, appear on the album, and so does his nephew, a musician named Teddy Grossman.
Gilbert tries his best to write Bruce Rits Gilbert songs, but somehow, Prine-like songs come out now and then. The album will even have a few Prine covers. Who were you expecting, The Beatles?
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