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John Prine's widow Fiona Whelan Prine on star-studded tribute and losing her husband

John Prine's widow on legacy and tribute show
John Prine's widow on losing her husband to the coronavirus and tribute concert honoring him 04:19

Late singer-songwriter John Prine is getting a star-studded send-off Thursday night, two months after the iconic musician died of complications from the coronavirus in April. The celebration of his life, which will raise money for charity and include the likes of Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert and Brandi Carlile, as well as an unreleased song by Prine, was organized by his family — including his widow, Fiona Whelan Prine, who spoke to "CBS This Morning" co-host Anthony Mason about how she is dealing with the aftermath of her husband's death.

Putting the tribute together while still grieving for her loss was "difficult," Whelan Prine told Mason.

"It's been difficult at times, but it's also been a great distraction," she said.

John Prine and Fiona Whelan met in Dublin in 1988, and she said "there was an immediate connection."

"We were hardly the best candidates to think about like, 'Let's go off and make a family together.' You know, I was 15 years younger than John. He'd already been married twice before," she said.

Despite the odds, Whelan credits "love and persistence" with why the relationship survived.

"We really worked at staying vulnerable to each other and for each other," she said.

They remained together for decades, Whelan standing firm with her husband through two bouts with cancer and then later a career renaissance at age 73.

In 2019, Prine won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and had been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. After a career spanning five decades, his wife said it was "absolutely" a victory lap.

Folk singer-songwriter John Prine performs. CBS News

"And John being John, as humble a man as he was — the biggest thrill was that he got to buy a Porsche 911, which neither he nor I could get in or out of," Whelan laughed.

The couple faced another battle when both contracted the coronavirus in March, after a European tour.

"And the day, in fact, I came out of quarantine, John started displaying serious symptoms," she said. "I took him to the ER — I had to leave him at the door. That was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I have never not been with him through an illness." 

She was allowed to visit Prine once, when she got a call from a doctor on their April 6 wedding anniversary, urging her to come immediately. 

"I honestly wanted to throw up," she said.

Whelan spent 17 hours by Prine's bedside while he was unconscious. Though he could not respond, she said she "talked to him."

"I got to tell him everything I had ever wanted to tell him," she said.

While she got the chance to say goodbye then, the couple's three sons have not. 

"They're sad," Whelan said. "John was proud of them. If they never got off the sofa, John would be proud of them."

While Whelan herself said she is in "uncharted territory," she also expressed confidence that she would recover from tragedy.

"I have the resilience muscle which is a little exhausted right now. But I'm gonna be okay. John left me a lot — a lot of memories, music, cars," she said. 

In addition to debuting an unreleased John Prine song during the Thursday tribute, Whelan said the artist had been working on a new album shortly before he died — and that more unreleased work will come out in the future. Other tributes will include performances from Jason Isbell, a song by Kacey Musgraves titled "Burn One with John Prine" and Bonnie Raitt covering Prine's hit, "Angel from Montgomery."

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