In recent years, ambitious books about music have sometimes missed the mark at capturing their subjects by feigning superiority and displaying unearned condescension. As one example, Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History (which I reviewed here on PopMatters) stands out.
John Prine, one of the most humane canonized singer-songwriters, would have had none of that. So, it’s fitting that a new anthology of media appearances of his work is presented with as much humility and love as he displayed in his songs.
Editor Holly Gleason’s new anthology, Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters with John Prine, is a tender delight and the first book in the Musicians in Their Own Words series overseen by someone who knew the subject very well. Gleason acknowledges in the introduction that the legendary singer-songwriter left out much in his remarks. Indeed, so much was not said that what is here can seem limited without context. Gleason also highlights Prine’s underappreciated musical range and her friendship and professional relationship with Prine. In such a position, Gleason is unusually fitting to be the curator behind such a collection, and she gratefully uses her knowledge of the music and the man to present an unusually strong portrait of an artist and their work.
Prine was a unique singer-songwriter from the western suburbs of Chicago. He was originally known as “The Singing Mailman” and was championed by film critic Roger Ebert and country giant Kris Kristofferson early on. They soon saw his songs appreciated and covered by everyone from Bette Midler to Johnny Cash. From his work, Prine appears among the most humane of singer-songwriters: by turns moving and hilarious, or as journalist Lloyd Sachs says in a 2005 profile collected here, “… in ways both goofy and sober, he’s at the head of the class in showing us how it’s done.”
However, the “interviews and encounters” in Prine on Prine are more revealing than even Prine’s songs, highlighting a deeper level of care for others, self-deprecation, and nonchalance about his accomplished career. Beginning with film critic Roger Ebert, who happened upon hearing Prine perform in 1970 and working through his death a half-century later, Prine on Prine enables longtime fans and new converts to better understand the man and his work, especially in the longer articles and interviews from later in his career.
With a less sensitive editor for this book, Prine’s noted distaste for the press could have made it read like a chore. Fortunately, Gleason proves an expert guide for surveying Prine’s career through portraits in many different media, including appearances in newspapers, journals, broadcasting, film scripts, the Library of Congress, car magazines, and cookbooks – all choice picks for showcasing the man behind the songs.
The anthology gives much attention to Prine’s founding of Oh Boy Records and his saga in the music business with other labels. Some of the strongest pieces include Prine’s unusual insights on songwriting, including an interview from Paul Zollo’s 2016 book More Songwriters on Songwriting.
Interestingly, much of Prine’s ‘70s output coverage happens in later interviews and speeches that place it in proper perspective. Although I would have loved more pieces covering these early years as they happened, the Ebert review and an interview with Studs Terkel are excellent.
Gleason, who also edited Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives (which I reviewed here on PopMatters), has culled a very strong array of pieces to represent the career of the man behind “Angel from Montgomery”, “Paradise”, “In Spite of Ourselves”, “That’s the Way the World Goes Round”, and “Lake Marie”. For the Prine obsessive, Prine on Prine is a must-read. For the average folk or country music fan, this is your chance to glimpse the work – and soul – of a giant.