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Music

John Prine, Survivor

Randy Sparkman

After nine years and a struggle with neck cancer, this troubadour of the frayed and forgotten returns with a luminous album that savors the irrepressible pleasure of simply being alive.

Last March, US poet laureate Ted Kooser hosted John Prine for a "literary evening" at the Library of Congress, the first such invitation for a songwriter. They sat face-to-face onstage at the imposing Coolidge Auditorium, mostly oblivious to the 500 people who had come to hear them. The owl-like Koomer, dressed in the uniform of the midwestern professor that he is, and Prine, in aging-rocker black, ruminated back and forth like two old men playing checkers. As you would expect from writers who've spent a lifetime trying to stack words into narrow columns of truth, they sat very still; questions and answers were exchanged between long pauses with a poet's economy of language. Prine punctuated the silence with a few songs, but the conversation inevitably turned to something else Kooser and Prine have in common: They are both recent cancer survivors.

The writers spoke with stark honesty of how their illness changed their lives and work. Prine, 58, mused that even his old songs had acquired "a new coat of paint". As the evening wore down, stillness overtook them and words escaped the poets. The essence they sought to summon center stage had crept in the back way and seized their hearts.

His voice beginning to tire, Prine ended with a song from his first album, "Sam Stone", a heartbreaking tribute to a doomed, heroin-addicted Vietnam vet -- "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where the money goes" -- a grim reminder of the ugly and inescapable ripples of war, a sturdy barn of a song, built thirty-five years ago, wet with a fresh coat of paint. With the crowd on its feet and his night's work done, Prine put his guitar in its stand and stood to go. He paused for an awkward bow, an ungainly character from one of his own songs with a "big ole' goofy grin". He made for the exit without a second look at his auspicious surroundings. His wife and boys were waiting for their hero: a man just happy to feel his toes wiggle in the end of his boot.

Run, don't walk, to the Wal-Mart or your coffeed-up Barnes and Noble. Use a charge card and flirt with the new credit police. Get a night job at the Krispy Kreme. Do what you must, but buy Prine's new record, Fair and Square: This is the sweet sound of second chance. You'll sleep better, and your kids will wonder why you suddenly hug them as if they might float away.

In 1971, Prine stunned critics with a debut album of spare and delicate snow globes, each worthy of Eudora Welty. The now-classic "Paradise", "Angel from Montgomery" and "Hello in There" spun humble majesty from passed over tales of regret and loss. "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" established his anti-war credentials and "Six O'Clock News" his pathos. But the whole album was leavened with a fatalistic humor that escaped most other deadly earnest singer-songwriters of the day. Hip music scribblers struggled for words to avoid crediting the 24-year-old with old-fashioned and un-ironic wisdom. For lack of a better label, or want of a marketable one, Prine was dubbed one more "new Dylan", but the comparison did not hold. Dylan was a cloud-splitter. Prine chose to split rails. For the next thirty years, as baby-boomer tastes shifted from the landscape of despair to the green lawns of suburbia, Prine never abandoned the frayed and forgotten. Hunkered over a Gibson J-200 in innumerable little halls, he accumulated a devoted troupe of followers and adoring critics.

Prine is notoriously patient with his muse. Fair and Square is his first album of original material in nine years. In that interval, Fate didn't leave a bundle of new songs outside his door; it decided to make him a villager inside one of his globes. He found himself in a harrowing fight with neck cancer.

He survived. And he got his bundle of songs. But he's singing a little rougher and lot wiser. He pushes the 14 Fair and Square cuts out through a ragged voice and shows us a man humbled by each sunrise. He celebrates "The Glory of True Love", the joy of "Takin' a Walk" and his "Darlin' Hometown" without apology. I suspect his delight has something to do with the fire and water of family. He is clearly smitten with his Irish wife, Fiona. And if the present tense of the Fair and Square play list is any indication, he has paused to savor his middle-aged time with his two young sons.

Ever the literate troubadour, Prine can still elevate the commonplace to the sublime and lead us through lonely rooms like a Dickens ghost. In a Fair and Square world, you might be "sitting in the back of my memory � radio's on, windows rolled up, and my mind's rolled down � headlights shining like silver moons rolling on the ground" or you could just as easily "wait for a phone call at the wrong end of a broom" or "get hired in the morning � get downsized that afternoon � and overcome with grief that evening." And Prine still troubles us with war. He has famously sent some concertgoers to the exit with his "Some Humans Ain't Human" lament that there's not much to be done when "some cowboy from Texas starts his own war in Iraq."

But there's an irrepressible joy in these songs that can illuminate the darkest corner of a heart. Without a whit of maudlin, the dry wryness of craft has been replaced with an awed wonder. Irony has been shown the door. He leaves us no doubt: Any life is better than no life.

Born and raised near Chicago, the son of a Kentucky-born union man, Prine seems to have soaked up the rural American songbook straight out of the rich middle-American earth. Stephen Foster and Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon are as accessible to him as the Carter Family and Elvis. He moved to Nashville in 1980 and formed his own record company soon after. Fair and Square is his first outing as a producer, and on this record, Prine reminds his adopted hometown how to make a country record. There's not a fancy-pants lick anywhere to be heard. He's backed not by a plastic Monkee band but the kind of outfit Merle Haggard took out on the road in 1973. Oh, there's plenty of obligatory acoustic guitar -- Prine is a folksinger after all. But there's a squeeze box and a full-throated pedal steel blowing through this thing like an evening breeze.

Nashville has not ignored John Prine. The fathers of country music still know how to annex an authentic American voice, battered as it may be. He was recently asked to perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame induction of his old mentor, and fellow surveyor of the heart, Kris Kristofferson. Prine sang the inductee's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and thanked him for "the chance to dream."

John Prine clearly has a new and hard-won respect for chances. We should, ourselves, be grateful for the opportunity to pause and share in his newest.

* * *

Randy Sparkman's folks have lived in north Alabama for six generations. Visit him at jubilationrising.com.

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