John Prine Reflects on a Life Rich in Music
John Prine: “Just by singing the songs in (new) keys, just about all of them became brand new to me; it was really a surprise! So it renewed my interest in the old songs."
John Prine and Kris Kristofferson have been justly regarded as two of America’s most gifted and revered singer-songwriters since the early 1970s. It was then that they first crossed paths in Chicago, an encounter that — improbably — also included actress Angela Lansbury, pop vocal star Paul Anka and singer-songwriter Steve Goodman, Prine’s close musical pal in the Windy City.
“I’m not good at remembering things, in general. But I remember that like it was yesterday, because it was such a turning point in my life,” said Prine.
The two troubadours’ joint encounter took place at the Earl of Old Town folk music club in the summer of 1971. It was a night that almost seems worthy of a documentary, if not a film script. (Prine is currently on tour and has some upcoming shows with Kristofferson.)
Prine was 24. The U.S. Army veteran had only recently quit his job delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service in order to focus on music full time.
Kristofferson, also an Army veteran, was 34. He was a rising star, thanks to songs he wrote that became hits for such country-music stars as Johnny Cash, Ray Price and Roger Miller. In early 1971, Janis Joplin’s posthumously released version of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” rose to No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts. He was on his way to reaching a much larger audience.
As Prine recounts it, Kristofferson was booked to play three nights at a Chicago club called Quiet Night, where Goodman was the opening act. Kristofferson was impressed by Goodman’s songs, in particular “City of New Orleans.” Goodman, in turn, would play at least one song a night by Prine and repeatedly encouraged Kristofferson to go hear Prine in person during his Chicago visit.
“The third night Kris was at the Quiet Night, Steve really put the hammer down to get Kris to come see me,” Prine recalled, speaking from a recent vacation in Florida. “It was late on a Sunday night. I was sitting around with the waitresses and dishwashers, waiting to get paid. And Goodman calls, and says: I’m bringing Kris, Paul Anka and Angela Lansbury over. Get ready to do a show!’ “
Paul Anka and Angela Lansbury?
“They happened to be in town that night, and went to Kris’ show,” Prine said with a chuckle. “Paul had done a show that night at a Chicago hotel. At the time, he was singing one of Kris’ songs, ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’.”
“So Kris comes over with them and I take my guitar out. All the rest of the tables had chairs turned upside down on them, so they were sitting two feet in front of the stage and I’m doing a show for those four people. I sang about six or seven songs. Then I sat down to have a beer with Kris. When I was done with the beer he asked if I would sing those same six or seven songs again, plus anything else I wrote.
“The evening went into the wee hours, and Kris started quoting lyrics from my songs that night. I went home so excited about meeting him and his being so knocked out by my songs, I don’t know if I slept that night. And it was all because of Steve Goodman!
“When I first heard Kris’ music, I thought it was really something and how strikingly special his songs were. I was doubly amazed at what a nice guy he was. That whole evening when I met him did, and didn’t, feel surreal, mainly because Kris immediately puts anybody he’s talking to at ease. He always does, and I’ve seen him do this time and again over the years. He talks directly to you. He doesn’t act like he’s in a hurry or has to be somewhere else. Because of that, it feels so natural when you meet him.”
Does Prine remember which songs he performed for Kristofferson at their first meeting in Chicago?
Indeed, he does.
“I’m sure I played ‘Sam Stone,’ ‘Hello in There,’ ‘Paradise,’ ‘Donald and Lydia’,” Prine said. “I played about half of (what became) my first album.”
Recalling that first time he heard Prine, Kristofferson later told an interviewer: “Unlike anything I’d heard before. Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s about two-hundred and twenty! I don’t know where he comes from, but I’ve got a good idea where he’s going. We went away believers (after hearing Prine), reminded how … good it feels to be turned on by a real creative imagination.”
Kristofferson, who also played an indirect but key role in getting Prine signed by Atlantic Records in New York, had ample reason to be impressed.
So did the Everly Brothers, who soon recorded “Paradise.” Bette Midler and Joan Baez each cut her own version of “Sam Stone,” a wrenching portrait of a U.S. military veteran who survives the war in Vietnam, only to become a drug addict upon returning home. It includes such sobering lines as: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.”
Another standout track on Prine’s self-titled 1971 debut album is “Angel From Montgomery,” which rivals his classic “Hello in There” as a riveting portrait of life through the eyes of an elderly person whose best days were decades ago. Long a staple of Bonnie Raitt’s concerts, “Angel” has also been recorded by Carly Simon, Tanya Tucker, Ben Harper, the Dave Matthews Band and others.
Amusingly, though, when opportunity came knocking for him to launch a national career with a major record label recording contract, Prine wasn’t so sure he wanted to answer the knock.
“I remember being hesitant about that,” he said. “Because, to tell the truth, things were gong so well for me in Chicago. I had just quit my job at the post office. I was playing (music) four nights a week and slept all day, because I didn’t have to get up early. And I was getting (paid) a thousand bucks a week under the table.
“I thought: ‘I can live like this forever!’ I didn’t know if I wanted to be involved with lawyers and record companies. I wanted to keep writing songs and enjoying myself and my music, and being with my wife. Had it been up to me, I would have stayed that way before I approached anybody about a record deal. But Goodman was very enthusiastic and he could talk you into anything. He finally said: ‘Have you every been to New York?’ I said: ‘No.’ He said: ‘Let’s go!’ “
The visit to New York was actually prompted by Anka, who told Prine and Goodman he could help introduce them to record company executives. He even went so far as to pay for their plane tickets from Chicago.
But Anka, whose biggest hits included “Diana,” “Puppy Love” and “You Are My Destiny,” never had the chance to follow through.
Upon landing in New York, Prine recalled, he and Goodman picked up a copy of the Village Voice at the airport. In it, they saw an ad for that evening’s performance by Kristofferson and Carly Simon at the Bitter End nightclub. They hopped in a taxi and headed straight for the club.
When they arrived, Kristofferson and his band were standing on the sidewalk in front of a bar next door to the Bitter End.
“This sounds like a Cinederella story, but Kris said: ‘Come on you guys, I’m going to put you on stage’,” Prine said. “I did three songs that night, and the audience was filled with all these press people and record company people, who had all come to see Kris and Carly.
“Jerry Wexler (from Atlantic Records) was there. The next day, at 10 a.m., Jerry offered me a $25,000 contract with Atlantic. I hadn’t even been in New York for 24 hours, and I hadn’t met with Paul Anka yet, and I already had a record deal.”
Now, as then, Prine credits Kristofferson for his friendship and selflessness.
“Kris was really hot at the time, and media people all across the nation wanted to do stories on this country singer-songwriter who was writing better than anyone since Hank Williams Sr. In his interviews, Kris would say: ‘Hey, there’s this guy in Chicago named John Prine you should know about.’ He did this in interview after interview. Through him, I was introduced to all these people before I had a record out.
“Kris did more for me than anyone, without looking for anything for himself (in return). I always make a point of telling musicians, and other singer-songwriters, that at no time did Kris ever introduce me to his music publisher or record label. He introduced me to people who were good people, and let it fly from there. After being in the music business for 45 years, I can see how rare that is.”
By coincidence, prior to meeting in Chicago 44 years ago, both men had both been stationed in what was then West Germany in the 1960s, when each was in the U.S. Army.
Kristofferson was an officer and a helicopter pilot, who was stationed near Frankfurt. Prine was an enlisted man and motor pool mechanic, who was stationed near Stuttgart. He still chortles at the memory of his military stint.
“I was a mechanic, even though I didn’t know a monkey wrench from a saw!” he said. “And I was the head of the motor pool, working on bulldozers, jeeps, trucks. I had a (repair manual) book in one hand and a screwdriver in the other.”
Like Kristofferson, Prine remained musically active while serving in Germany. He wrote a number of songs there, including at least one that ended up on his 1978 album, “Bruised Orange,” and two that appeared on his second album, 1972’s “Diamonds in the Rough.”
He continued to write songs during his subsequent stint delivering mail in Chicago. Like jazz great Charles Mingus before him and Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard more recently, Prine is one of the most notable musicians in this country to have worked for the U.S. Postal Service before his musical career took off.
“I wrote a lot of my songs on my (mail) route,” he said. “There was nothing much else to do; once you know you’re on your street, you just put the right mail in 497 houses. I wrote most of ‘Hello in There’ in a relay box, which looks like a mail box, only bigger. Sometimes, it was so cold and windy on my mail route that I’d go inside the relay box and eat a sandwich, just to get away from the wind. I remember working on ‘Hello in There’ inside the relay box.”
“When I was a mailman, writing songs was my escape from the regular world, and now writing songs is my job,” he said. “And I’ve always been one to avoid my job. In the Army, I was very good at avoiding my job!”
While Prine has never scored a hit single, his best work has become part of the American musical fabric for several generations. Like few other American singer-songwriters before or since, his songs sound both fresh and weathered, while his conversational tone and alternately tender and wry lyrics dig deep to strike a resounding chord.
“John Prine is one of the greats,” actor and musician Jeff Daniels recently told the Union-Tribune. “The imagery he uses is very much like a playwright, very much like what I’d see in a Lanford Wilson play.”
As Prine sees it, the craft of songwriting relies in large part on using small details to paint a bigger portrait of the human condition.
“The best way I can explain it is that when I’m doing any kind of story-song, I like a good ashtray or table in the details, something everybody sees every day,” he said. “Then, when you go into a metaphor about something, the listener just has to fill in the blanks to complete a picture you’re trying to convey.
“I wouldn’t write about something if it’s been better described already. So I try and talk about the emotion, and to do it in everyday talk, to put it in a situation everybody can relate to. Then I see if I can put my finger on that emotion a little bit better.”
With nearly 20 albums to draw from, Prine has lots of material to choose from for his concerts. He laughed when asked to describe his criteria for selecting songs to perform on stage.
“I see if the band is interested!” he said. “And myself.”
“I don’t mind singing the (fan) favorites, at all,” Prine elaborated. “About 10 years ago. I had a bout with cancer, and it was in doubt if I’d be able to play or even talk again after the surgery. … It took me about a year before I could pick up a guitar and sing again. I had to put all my songs in a different key, because my voice had dropped.
“Just by singing the songs in (new) keys, just about all of them became brand new to me; it was really a surprise! So it renewed my interest in the old songs. It took me from: ‘Oh, I don’t want to sing this again,’ to ‘I can’t wait to sing this again!’"