It’s no secret that Val’s halla Records, 239 Harrison St. in the Arts District, has been struggling. Val Camilletti (1939-2018), the long-time proprietor, was one of Oak Park’s most beloved figures for over four decades. For 46 years Val sold new and used records while sharing her warmth and wisdom about music ranging from ragtime to rock. She died of cancer while in hospice care nearly a year ago.
Through the decades, while developing a large number of devoted customers, Val had also got to know many musicians, especially those with local roots. One who was especially significant was John Prine from Maywood. Val actually helped John choose his first pressings for his records.
Shayne Blakely, who spent half of his 38 years working at Val’s halla, continues to manage the store. He pays the bills, builds relationships, and sells new and used vinyl, cassettes, and CD’s, ever hustling to keep the place afloat. Shayne was one of Val’s devoted army of workers. Sometimes assisted by his Michigan mother, Vonnia Bell, Shayne is committed to keeping Val’s dream alive. Bell told me John Prine contacted Shayne a while ago “out of the blue” and offered to appear at the record store, talk to folks’ interview-style, and then sign books and his new album. Prine, a long-time friend of Val’s, hoped an appearance might provide a boost to the store. He was in town from his home in Nashville to appear at Ravinia on Saturday night.
Folksinger/songwriter, two-time Grammy-winner Prine, now 72, has survived two kinds of cancer; his voice now has a slightly more gravely edge. But he’s more popular than ever.
We have a few things in common. We are both the same age, being born in October 1946. When I arrived in Maywood in 1968 for my first year of teaching at his former high school, Proviso East, John was released from the Army. His family rented a house on 1st Ave., just south of the high school. John was my mailman on 5th Avenue in Maywood before his musical career took off.
John is the third of four sons born to William and Verna Prine who were natives of western Kentucky. They came north so William could escape the drudgery of coal mining. I taught the youngest son, Billie Prine, in American Lit at Proviso. During the Viet Nam War era Billie had a shirt made out of an American flag. When I was out with the flu once, Billie wore it to school and an over-zealous, uber patriotic substitute tried to get him expelled. Billie now has a substantial musical career, too.
Val’s halla was packed with people when I arrived. It is not really a performance venue but the storefront’s window area often serves as a small stage. Every aisle in the store was crowded with John Prine fans.
WGN Radio weekend host and journalist Dave Hoekstra introduced John and interviewed him. Many questions were submitted by members of the audience.
John was quite funny and told many off-the-cuff stories about growing up in Maywood and his early days performing on the North Side. He was a central figure in the Chicago folk revival. I often went with friends to hear him at the Earl of Old Town, The Bulls, and The Quiet Knight.
John’s debut album appeared in 1971. I played it so much I wore it out. There were such great songs as “Illegal Smile,” “Sam Stone,” and “Hello in There.” The latter, about the loneliness of an old couple, is truly haunting. John is exceptional at articulating the thoughts of ordinary people. I am always amazed that he could write so insightfully about the elderly while only in his early 20s. “Sam Stone” is about a heroin-addicted Viet Nam veteran with a Purple Heart. A poignant line from Sam’s little daughter: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes…”
John Prine is one of the most influential songwriters of his generation. His first new album of original material in 13 years, “The Tree of Forgiveness,” was a hot item at Val’s halla the other night. John never seemed to tire of signing copies or chatting with his fans.
Prine’s stories were fun. He talked of a “dirty magazine store” that was across the street from the library and post office in Maywood. He admits he was a terrible student. He also spoke of lately missing foods, like Chicago hot dogs, pizza, and Italian beef sandwiches. He still thinks “Johnnie’s” on North Ave. has the best of the latter.
His older brother Dave still lives in Maywood so John always enjoys touring the area when he gets back for a visit. When John was 14, Dave taught him some basic chords and got him “going” on the guitar. At first John seemed to be more interested in impressing girls than making a mark in music.
The future of Val’s halla may still be insecure but the other night when her old pal John Prine was there, it was quite an occasion.