John Prine‘s 2005 album Fair & Square was greatly anticipated at its release seeing as it was his first album of entirely new material since 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. During this ten year gap, he released a highly-acclaimed duet album of mostly covers (the much-loved In Spite of Ourselves), an album where he re-recorded 15 of his older songs (Souvenirs), married his manager, raised two sons and a stepson, and had a cancerous growth surgically removed from his neck. The gradual rise of Americana and indie-folk in the early 21st century found a new generation of musicians heavily influenced by Prine. Whether he liked it or not, his reputation as an American Treasure was safely in place. After being invited by then-Poet Laureate Ted Kooser to discuss his lyrics at the Library of Congress in 2005, Prine told NPR’s Melissa Block, “I could just sit there in a museum now.”
Fortunately for everyone, he didn’t just sit there. His 15th album Fair & Square made a substantial dent in the Billboard charts while winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Praise poured in from Rolling Stone and the Washington Post. Even Robert Christgau of the Village Voice has gone on to second guess his initially lukewarm reaction to the album. Not long after its initial release, the album was pressed to vinyl with an extra four songs, also known as the Fair & Square EP, to fill out the fourth side.
Prine’s label Oh Boy Records is celebrating its 40th birthday in a variety of ways this year, including the release of a brand new double vinyl pressing of Fair & Square in three different colors. The CD’s bonus tracks “Other Side of Town” and “Safety Joe” are here as well as the four supplemental tracks from the first vinyl edition. The only odd thing about the layout is the “Other Side of Town” concludes side three while “Safety Joe” begins the EP side, a batch of songs it was never associated with before.
With 18 songs and a runtime close to an hour and 18 minutes, this edition of Fair & Square may appear to be a bloated album, especially when compared to the concise shape of his final release, The Tree of Forgiveness. But more time spent with Fair & Square will gradually make the “filler” worthwhile tunes while the standout tunes grow stronger. Prine co-wrote a great deal of the record with his Nashville friends Roger Cook and Pat McLaughlin and teamed up with Donnie Fritts and Keith Sykes on two of the songs. Covers include Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”, R.B. Morris’ “That’s How Every Empire Falls”, and the Carter Family’s “Bear Creek Blues”. The list of credited musicians is stuffed with A-listers from Nashville, including Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Dan Dugmore, and Dan Tyminski, with Gary Paczosa producing. With so many things thrown into the pot, it’s pleasantly surprising that Fair & Square comes out as solid and consistent as it is.
Prine and his band nudged the door open with “Glory of True Love”, a peppy ditty using a Cajun accordion to flavor an ode to, well, true love — saying it “will never go out of fashion / Always will look good on you.” With “Long Monday”, Prine stretches the first word of the title to excellent effect, wishing for a weekend love affair to last forever. “Taking a Walk” wraps up the first side in a languid pace with background vocals reminiscent of 1960s records. The background singers shoot for a similar effect on “Morning Train”, which owes more to blues than folk. “Clay Pigeons” is such a natural fit for Prine that a friend of mine believed the original Foley recording to be Prine himself.
The jaunty “Bear Creek Blues” is a superb way to end the initial album, discounting bonus tracks, but the centerpiece to Fair & Square has to be the slow waltz that opens the second side, “Some Humans Ain’t Human”. No one should have been surprised that Prine would take aim at the Bush administration in 2005. After all, this was the same guy who felt victimized by “The Great Compromise” during the “dirty little war” that overcrowded heaven and gave a soldier named “Sam Stone” a “hundred dollar habit overtime”.
In “Some Humans Ain’t Human”, Prine takes stock of those who lack decency and awareness by describing the contents of their hearts as junk food in a freezer. His spoken word stanza makes things even clearer. “Have you ever noticed when you’re feeling really good / There’s always some pigeon that’ll come shit on your hood? / Or you’re feeling your freedom and the world’s off your back / Some cowboy from Texas starts his own war in Iraq.”
The songs from the EP on side four are not mere afterthoughts. Their inclusion on the original album would not have been out of place. The full band numbers “That’s Alright By Me” and “Dual Custody” in particular are pretty fun. The humor of “Safety Joe”, a song about a guy who plays life too safe, is a bit stale, but Prine makes up for it with “Other Side of Town”, a live recording of a song about a guy who takes ignoring his wife’s words to a whole new level. The crowd eats it up.
Nowadays, the focus of John Prine’s later years tends to turn to his duet albums In Spite of Ourselves and For Better, or Worse, as well as his bittersweet swan song The Tree of Forgiveness. So it’s easy to forget that Fair & Square made a modest splash upon its arrival in 2005. In retrospect, it had a little bit of everything: blues, politics, humor, sadness, introspection, soupy background vocals, and some rocked-up Carter family. It may not rank as a top favorite among Prine’s fanbase, but it certainly made the case that he never ceased being a songwriter’s songwriter.