Luminaries from the film, music and writing worlds honored Tom Waits and folk singer John Prine for their songwriting at the Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Awards on Monday. Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, also was honored.
John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello and Roseanne Cash took turns performing renditions of the artists' songs before a crowd of more than 500 people at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
Mellencamp opened the ceremony with an a cappella version of Prine's 1978 song "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone," which imagines the later years of an Indian child actor from the early 1940s. Mellencamp called the lyrics "sophisticated but simple."
"Who writes songs like that?" he said. "Two people come to mind — God and John Prine."
Irish author Colum McCann, director Jim Jarmusch, country singer Sturgill Simpson and Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band reflected on the artists' accomplishments in remarks that ranged from personal to poetic.
McCann described Waits and Brennan as "patriots of elsewhere" who stay "close to the ground" and "hear things that no one else hears."
"They find out what others have not quite fathomed yet," he said. "They catch the ordinary so that it can be sung extraordinarily in the future."
Waits and Prine each treated the crowd to a song after giving brief remarks.
Prine, whose voice has become deep and raspy following a battle with cancer that required removal of part of his neck, said he was "stunned" by the honor.
Waits reflected on working with Brennan, his longtime musical collaborator, who became the first woman to win the award since it was introduced in 2012.
"It's not always fun writing together," Waits said in a humorous, sometimes rambling speech. "Sometimes the fur flies. It's not an easy enterprise, but it's satisfying."
Brennan, speaking briefly before her husband, said she has a "lay low" personality and isn't always accustomed to the spotlight.
Waits and Prine, now in their late 60s, emerged in the 1970s and have been performing for decades. Waits gained notoriety for his blend of jazz, blues and folk music and his distinctive growl. Prine wrote many songs that have become folk and country standards.
Cash, joined by Costello on acoustic guitar, performed one of those, "Hello in There," about old age and loneliness, from Prine's 1971 debut album.
The Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award is bestowed biennially by the writers' group PEN New England. This year's honorees were chosen by a committee that included U2's Bono, Cash, Costello and Salman Rushdie.
The first awards were given to Chuck Berry and Leonard Cohen in 2012. The 2014 awards went to Kris Kristofferson and Randy Newman.