He’s written from the point of view of a middle-aged woman racked with disappointment and regret, and a lonely elderly man reminiscing about long-dead friends and family. Sure, John Prine’s chameleonic metamorphosis into his characters in songs like “Angel From Montgomery” and “Hello in There” (both from his 1971 debut album) is impressive. But the greatest genius of this craggy-voiced cult hero is his ability to, more often than not, take the mundane and make it mythical.
Prine has been quoted as saying, “Writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what’s not supposed to be there.” He proves that adage over and over in his songs, stripping life down to its barest essence — at times unearthing something akin to the divine in the process — all the while maintaining a sardonic sense of humor. By turns drolly romantic and touchingly goofy, Prine depicts Everyman and Everywoman with an untinted lens.
Consider two of his more popular tunes, “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” and “Dear Abby”: In the former, Prine shows a gruff but heartfelt romanticism: “You come home late and you come home early/You come on big when you’re feeling small/You come home straight and you come home curly/Sometimes you don’t come home at all/So what in the world’s come over you?/And what in heaven’s name have I done?/You’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness/You’re out there running just to be on the run.” The latter song, however, is pure goof: “Dear Abby, Dear Abby/Well I never thought/That me and my girlfriend would ever get caught/We were sittin’ in the back seat just shootin’ the breeze/With her hair up in curlers and her pants to her knees/Signed ‘Just Married.'”
About his songwriting process, Prine once simply said this: “I consider myself to be one of the most undisciplined people in the world. I’d leave a song in a hot second for a hot dog.”
The world first heard Prine in 1971 with the release of his debut album, called simply John Prine (Atlantic Records). Widely heralded as a masterpiece, it featured many of the songs that have become synonymous with the mere mention of Prine’s name — and Prine was hailed, for better or worse, as “the new Dylan.” The singer/songwriter’s Midwestern drawl, sparse guitar chords and dry delivery were a perfect complement to the bare-bones poignancy and bittersweet humor of his lyrics. “Sam Stone” is the tale of a drug-addicted Vietnam vet. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose,” Prine sings, before delivering the final whammy in the song’s last verse: “Sam Stone was alone/When he popped his last balloon/Climbing walls while sitting in a chair/Well, he played his last request/While the room smelled just like death/With an overdose hovering in the air/But life had lost its fun/There was nothing to be done/But trade his house that he bought on the GI bill/For a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.” In a dead-on mirror of the times, Prine tackled Vietnam again in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”: “Oh your flag decal won’t get you/Into Heaven anymore/They’re already overcrowded/From your dirty little war/Now Jesus he don’t like killin’/No matter what the reason for/And your flag decal won’t get you/Into Heaven anymore.”
Then there was the tune that is perhaps his most finely crafted: “Angel From Montgomery” (famously re-recorded later in an astounding duet with Bonnie Raitt) — a look through the eyes of a woman in what she views as the declining years of middle age, lamenting lost dreams and missed opportunities. “If dreams were thunder/and lightning was desire/This old house would have burned down a long time ago,” Prine sings, in a line that one reviewer described this way: “In one sentence, Prine tells a story many songwriters could not tell given a whole album.”
Born in Western Kentucky and raised in blue-collar Maywood, Ill. (a suburb of Chicago) in 1946, Prine first picked up a guitar at age 12. He began making up songs during the family’s frequent trips to the hardscrabble coal-mining town of Paradise, Ky., his father’s hometown — culminating, much later, in one of Prine’s most popular songs, “Paradise” (“Daddy won’t you take me down to Muhlenberg County/down by the Green River where Paradise lays …”). After graduating from high school, Prine took a job as a mailman in Chicago — which unexpectedly had its creative benefits. “There isn’t a whole lot to do out there delivering mail, so you have to entertain yourself somehow,” he told one reporter. Prine beat the boredom by making up songs as he trudged Chicago’s streets. In 1966, Prine was drafted, spending a few years at an Army base in Germany. After discharge, he picked up where he’d left off as a postal worker.
A dare by a buddy in Chicago folk club in 1970 found the budding songwriter on a stage for the first time. Performing songs he’d honed on the streets of Chicago, he captivated the audience and the club’s owner — who offered him a job. Prine laid down his mail bag for good, and soon attracted the attention of revered songwriter Steve Goodman, who took Prine under his wing — becoming perhaps his biggest influence. Less than a year after first setting foot on a stage, an Atlantic Records executive was in the audience at one of Prine’s shows. Bowled over by what he heard, he offered Prine a record deal on the spot. The seminal John Prine was born.
Prine has gone on to record 18 more albums, including 1992’s The Missing Years — the first work released on his then-brand-new label, Oh Boy Records. (Finding himself at loose ends and without a major-label deal in the ’80s, after his “new Dylan” mantle had begun to wear thin with the public, Prine moved to Nashville and took matters into his own hands.) Ironically enough, The Missing Years is widely regarded as his breakthrough “commercial” CD. Until that point, Prine had enjoyed a rabid following among a loyal corps of fans, and much critical acclaim, but little true commercial success. The Missing Years — on which Prine enlisted the talents of such heavy hitters as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Bonnie Raitt — won the Grammy that year for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.
Of this success, Prine told a reporter, “My current popularity will probably pass. I can’t really see what I do going on to arenas and my name becoming a household name. … If my first albums would have sold well, I would have ended up in a f••king institution. Heck, a long time ago, I thought people who got into the entertainment business were either from wealthy families or from France.” He’s reported to have felt an odd melancholy, in fact, about the Grammy win, even complaining about the heavy physical weight of the award. “I never really cared one way or the other if I won any awards or not,” he told one writer.
Whether he cared or not, Prine’s latest release, In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy Records, 1999), was also nominated for the Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy (losing out, this time, to Tom Waits’ Mule Variations).
But this is a record that almost wasn’t finished. Begun some three years ago — when he went into the studio to record duets with Iris DeMent and Lucinda Williams, among others — Prine took a break from the project to go on the road. Early into the tour, he realized he was ill. Diagnosed with neck cancer, he underwent surgery and months of radiation treatment. With typical deadpan humor and self-deprecation, he issued this statement to his fans (part of a larger message about his illness and recovery): “Hopefully, my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above shoulders.”
Prine has been free of any recurrence of cancer for some 18 months now.
Just months after its release, In Spite of Ourselves has already garnered more acclaim than most of his previous releases — culminating in the Grammy nod (ironic, in a way, since all but one tune on the disc are covers). A gorgeous walk through traditional male/female country duets, the disc is a bittersweet Valentine about cheatin’ and lyin’, lovin’ tender and lovin’ rough. (It’s imperative to drop all “g’s” when referrin’ to true country music.) “The working title was ‘Meetin’, Cheatin’ and Retreatin’,” Prine has revealed.
“Country music was once a place of truth, and people being honest about how lives were really lived,” Prine told one reporter. “I sat down to make up a list of dream duet partners to record real country music, and we started calling people up. To my surprise, they all said ‘yes’. And you know what? I like singing with girls: It kinda takes the edge off my voice.”
Those “girls” include — in addition to DeMent and Williams — Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Delores Keane, Connie Smith and Fiona Prine (John’s wife, a traditional Irish singer). From the racy, wife-swapping plea of Onie Wheeler’s “Let’s Invite Them Over” (with DeMent) to the I’m-just-a-fool-in-love twang of Jack Clement’s “I Know One” (with Harris) to the lament of mismatched lovers in Roger Miller’s “When Two Worlds Collide” (with Trisha Yearwood) to perhaps the most perfect male/female country duet ever written (George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “We’re Not the Jet Set” — also with DeMent), the disc examines love’s many permutations with a sweet-but-edgy — and highly respectful, particularly for Prine — gaze.
An amazon.com music writer gave In Spite of Ourselves one of its more memorable reviews: “Given Prine’s ragged-but-right voice, the effect is something akin to casting a grizzled character actor opposite Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. And you know what? It’d probably still be a charming (albeit very different) movie, because romantic comedies, like country duets, are all about chemistry, which is something In Spite of Ourselves has in excess.”
The title track, the disc’s only Prine-penned tune, was written as part of the soundtrack for Billy Bob Thornton’s upcoming movie, Mama and Them — a film in which Prine co-stars. “The whole idea of [the song] is that, in spite of themselves, regardless of the characters involved, love is going to win out in the end,” Prine recently explained. “At the end of the day, that’s true. If it’s love, no matter what you do, it’s gonna happen.”
What character, by the way, does Prine play in the movie? In typecasting that goes beyond uncanny, his role is described as “a Zen hillbilly.”