Remembering John Prine's 'The Missing Years'
On John Prine's first album of the 1990s, the legendary singer-songwriter invited a few Heartbreakers, some ace session players, an Everly, Bonnie Raitt, and the Boss to help make the best album since his classic debut.
The Missing Years
24 September 1991
John Prine, like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, always seemed to be an artist that had to grow into his songs. They seemed to be too wise, too lived-in, to have come from the mind of a 24-year-old (his age at the time his self-titled debut was released). By the mid-1980s, however, his voice had gathered just enough gravelly gravitas (unfortunately accelerated by years of smoking) that his re-recorded version of "Paradise" truly did feel like he was doing a lifetime of looking back.
That version was released in 1986 on German Afternoons, the second album recorded for his own label, Oh Boy! Records. It also included the now-classic "The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" and typical high-quality Prine cuts like the Fred Koller co-write "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" (on the CD reissue) and the Bill Murray favorite, "Linda Goes to Mars". It was also nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Folk category. After spending the first decade of his career on the majors, he had scored a much-coveted Grammy nomination on his own terms and on his own label.
Then, five years passed, an eternity in the entertainment business. Luckily, for Prine, he didn't see himself in the entertainment business. He was a troubadour in the folk tradition, albeit with his own label. He eventually decided it was time to make another record (after releasing a live album in 1988).
Names as varied as Roger Waters and Michael Kamen showed an interest in producing the project. After recalling seeing Howie Epstein and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers at a number of his shows, Prine thought of giving Epstein a shot, since he had just produced a hit album for Carlene Carter the year before. Epstein jumped at the chance and brought with him some big names that were all too willing to take part, including his boss, Tom Petty, and The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, along with Phil Everly and longtime Prine champion, Bonnie Raitt. The musicians included Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, in addition to all-stars such as Albert Lee, David Lindley, Mickey Raphael, and John Jorgeson, among others.
The album's title, The Missing Years, served not only as the name of the album's final track -- a hypothetical recounting of Jesus' life in his teens and 20s not covered in the Bible -- but as a wink to all of us wondering why it took Prine five years to follow up German Afternoons.
All of that wondering fell away as the album's first track burst forth from the speakers. "Picture Show" didn't sound like the acoustic folkie version of John Prine we'd gotten used to over the years. Oh, it was still prime Prine, all right, but it was the rock radio-ready version. It was John Prine backed by members of the Heartbreakers, especially Tom Petty, lending his unmistakable drawl as Prine recounted James Dean's story of "a young man from a small town with a very large imagination" and how he ends up in Hollywood a big star. Prine gets to list his big- and small-screen heroes, from James Dean to Montgomery Clift (stopping along the way to give a nod once again to John Garfield). The electric guitars ring and twang. The beat is laid back yet insistent. It's a perfect opener in how it announces its arrival.
From there, The Missing Years just draws you deeper and deeper into Prine's world. From his nakedly honest divorce song, "All The Best" to the Mississippi John Hurt-inspired "Daddy's Little Pumpkin" and the down-and-dirty blues of "Great Rain", the album runs the gamut of not only blues and folk, but rock and even hook-heavy pop. In the latter category, consider the John Mellencamp co-write (the two first collaborated on "Jackie O" on Mellencamp's Uh-huh) "Take a Look at My Heart" (featuring backing from Springsteen), a slice of pure heartland pop that would've sounded great on the radio.
Much of The Missing Years unapologetically aimed for radio, but not the top 40. Instead, it set its sights on the fledgling Triple-A format where artists of Prine's age, stature, and sound started to find a home in the early 1990s (think Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Dave Matthews Band, etc.) before Americana became a thing.
Even though the album was expertly crafted, its artistry did not suffer. Instead, it was enhanced by the extra care taken, and Prine's writing was as sharp as ever. Whether putting to song the many similies he and his mother would rattle off in "It's a Big Ol' Goofy World", or coming up with an existential masterpiece at the last minute in his hotel room when pressured by Epstein to come up with one more song ("The Sins of Memphisto"), there are gems throughout The Missing Years.
Though some editing may have helped, its length is far from a deal-breaker. It was the height of the compact disc boom after all, and artists and labels alike were taking full advantage of the availability of much more storage space. Nevertheless, after five years, 14 new songs from John Prine was a most welcome surprise.
Eventually winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, The Missing Years stands alongside John Prine's debut as twin peaks in a career that may never have experienced superstardom but did garner a much more long-lasting attribute: respect and admiration from fellow artists, songwriters, and discerning music lovers worldwide, due to songs that will remain long after the top forty hits have long faded from memory.
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