Souvenirs: The Enduring Appeal of John Prine

John Prine
John Prine: In Person & On Stage
Oh Boy

Oddly enough, it was film critic Roger Ebert who gave John Prine his first review. As the story goes, Ebert walked out of a movie and into a local club in search of a beer, only to be blindsided by the young Prine’s performance. Ebert promptly went home and wrote a review of the set (instead of writing about the movie he’d given up on).

Around that same time, Steve Goodman (with whom Prine eventually co-wrote “You Never Even Call Me By My Name”) brought Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka by to hear Prine play. From the very beginning of his career, Prine was surprising people with songs that radiated warmth, humanity, humor, and a poet’s eye for detail. It wasn’t long before Prine’s eponymous debut album was making waves, and Prine was in New York hobnobbing with the likes of Carly Simon and Bob Dylan.

What a debut it is. Of John Prine‘s 13 songs (which include classics like “Illegal Smile”, “Hello in There”, “Sam Stone”, “Paradise”, “Angel from Montgomery”, and “Six O’Clock News”), at least ten still get called out and requested with regularity at his shows. Most songwriters would be happy to write one of those songs in a career, and here was Prine in his mid-20s, unleashing a murderers’ row of great song after great song — on his very first album.

Equally surprising is that the Prine we know today was pretty fully-formed way back in 1971. At a time and age when he had every right to flash an angry young man persona, Prine came across as laid-back, funny, and involved. His political or social songs didn’t drip with bile, and even on his most serious songs, Prine often sounded like a guy just telling a story. Prine’s anti-war vignette “Sam Stone” contains the devastating couplet “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose”, but Prine’s anger is muted by the song’s tenderness and humanity. “Six O’Clock News” provides a backstory to the type of tragedy we take for granted on the nightly news, anchored by a plea for connection: “C’mon, baby, spend the night with me”. “Angel from Montgomery”, written from the persona of an old woman who looks around her, lamenting the fact that her “old man is another child who’s grown old” and that “if dreams were thunder / Lightning was desire / this old house would have burned down a long time ago”? Words really can’t do it justice, especially not after Bonnie Raitt filled it with so much soul.

So if the rest of Prine’s career seems like a downward slope after that, it’s only because we’re still mesmerized by that one record’s impact, and we need to be slapped out of it, from time to time. Diamonds in the Rough (1972) was more light-hearted, but still gave us “Souvenirs” and “Take the Star Out of the Window”. Sweet Revenge (1973) dropped classics like “Christmas in Prison”, “Dear Abby”, “Blue Umbrella”, and “Grandpa Was a Carpenter”. On and on it goes. Some albums were obviously stronger than others, but that often had more to do with production choices than the quality of the songs themselves.

That’s what made 1998’s Live such a wonderful surprise. With few omissions, it presented the best of Prine’s run up to that point, mostly via intimate acoustic arrangements that revealed amazing songs that might not have gotten their due. Chock full of funny stories and wonderful songs stripped down to their essence, the album was a perfect “Here’s what you missed, maybe even if you were listening all along” presentation of Prine’s strengths.

Live is one of those rare albums that makes you re-evaluate songs you’d dismissed. In my case, that whiplash moment came in the form of “Mexican Home”. I’d always considered the lurching, wobbly studio version to be unlistenable, but the Live version jettisons all the Nashville gilding in favor of an emotional, plainspoken reading. It’s such a wonderful performance that the original studio version no longer seems annoying; now it sounds like blasphemy. Not only did Live showcase Prine’s “aw shucks” sincerity, it also set a precedent for Prine giving us live albums that asked us to check back in with what he’d been up to.

Shortly after, Prine enjoyed his greatest commercial success up to that point, winning a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy for 1991’s The Missing Years. Boasting songs like the bitter kiss-off “All the Best” (“I wish you don’t do like I do / And never fall in love with someone like you”) and “Jesus the Missing Years” (an irreverent look at what the Son of God might have been up to when the Bible lost track of him), The Missing Years provided another high water mark that made us perhaps underestimate the albums that followed. Cue the arrival of 1997’s Live on Tour, which blended old and new songs, offering surprises in the process.

Prine’s been somewhat busy over the last decade, releasing one new John Prine disc, recording a duets album with his favorite female singers, re-recording some of his classics in a bid to retrieve the rights from his former label, and recording an album of standards with bluegrass figure Mac Wiseman. He’s enjoying the fruits of a long career, creating things because he wants to and having a good time. A bout with cancer in 1998 nearly took Prine’s voice away from him (not to mention potentially taking Prine himself away), but Prine rebounded to play to adoring theater crowds.

He remarried. He received an AMA Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting in 2003 and an AMA Artist of the Year award in 2005. Basically, the last decade has been one long well-deserved victory lap for Prine.

So the time feels right for not just another live album, but for a long overdue John Prine tribute record. We get both. May 25th is the arrival date for John Prine: In Person & on Stage, while Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine follows up on June 22nd.

Like Prine’s other live albums, On Stage gently nudges listeners to re-evaluate his catalog. In this case, the record is dominated by “minor” Prine songs like “The Late John Garfield Blues”, “Spanish Pipedream”, and “Unwed Fathers” — all familiar songs to Prine devotees, but not mentioned in the same breath as “Sam Stone” or “Hello in There”. Backed by his current band of Jason Wilber (guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Dave Jacques (upright and electric bass, vocals), Prine gussies up a few songs in gentle layers of twang, but nothing approaching his early Nashville days.

Prine’s voice, and his words, are front-and-center where they should be as he revisits fun “oldies” like “The Bottomless Lake” or “Spanish Pipedream”, as well as newer songs like “She is My Everything” and “Long Monday”. He even dusts off “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”. In places, Prine sounds a bit older and frayed, as you’d expect from a cancer survivor in his 60s; some contend that Prine’s newfound gentle rasp adds a nice touch of additional gravity to some of his songs.

On Stage also boasts a wealth of guests. Iris DeMent reprises her duet duties on “In Spite of Ourselves” and provides twangy counterpoint on “Unwed Fathers”. Emmylou Harris trades laments with Prine on “Angel from Montgomery”, and Josh Ritter shares “Mexican Home”. Sara Watkins sings and plays fiddle on “The Late John Garfield Blues”. Kane Welch Kaplin, Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch, and Fats Kaplin help close things out with a rousing “Paradise”, which sounds just as topical now as it did nearly 40 years ago.

Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows is a natural companion to On Stage, and not just because of close release dates. Both records show a fondness for the less well-known corners of Prine’s catalog. They even share some of the same voices, as Sara Watkins and Josh Ritter revisit “The Late John Garfield Blues” and “Mexican Home”, respectively.

By and large, the various treatments on Broken Hearts don’t rock the boat too much. The vibe is far too amiable for anyone to strike out on a quest to provide their own definitive version of a Prine song. The Avett Brothers’ ramshackle charm perfectly suits the pastoral fantasy of “Spanish Pipedream”, Old Crow Medicine Show fit “Angel from Montgomery” surprisingly well, and Justin Townes Earle brings a sense of late-night loneliness to “Far from Me”. The most left-field rendition comes courtesy of Nashville collective Lambchop, who give “Six O’Clock News” a shimmery, medicated languor that will work for some listeners and not for others. Perhaps balancing that out, Drive-by Truckers give “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” the roadhouse stomp treatment.

In the case of Prine’s songs, though, sonic flourishes don’t matter as much as keeping true to the song’s heart, and the participants on Broken Hearts succeed pretty admirably on that score. “Here are some songs we like,” they seem to be saying, not worrying about spreading the gospel of Prine to a new generation so much as paying their respects. “These are some good songs.”

Man, are they ever.

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