"There’s too many volatile things going on in the world,” says John Prine, assessing the fountain of inspiration for the always topical songwriting legend. “It’s always good for journalists, comedians and folk singers.“This country’s in a very odd place right now, paranoid really… traveling around, talking to strangers. Just saying, ‘Hello. How are you?’ or ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’ People are scared to talk to you.
“I just came back from Canada – and people are so very nice, warm. They don’t have this fear driven into them like we do.”
Considering that Prine, who has two sold-out shows at the Ryman in October and releases “For Better, Or Worse” on Sept. 30, has served in the military overseas, delivered mail, spent time with his grandparents in Kentucky and written songs that capture major truths about the human condition in three minutes, often by illuminating a handful of moments in a few people’s lives; he’s a student of the world around him.
By watching and writing, he’s built a career and a body of work that make us all feel more, well, human. Indeed, those songs earned Prine a 2016 PEN Award alongside equally singular songwriter/artist Tom Waits; though no one brings the empathy to outsiders, lost souls, broken people and the forgotten quite like the Grammy winner from Maywood, Ill.
“Angel From Montgomery” captures the emptiness of a woman ignored in her marriage, while “Sam Stone” considers the junkie Vietnam vet so strung out on the memories he gets strung out and ODs, and “Hello In There” peers on an elderly couple left behind by life. Then there’s “Paradise,” the song lamenting Peabody Coal’s strip-mining in Muhlenberg County, recently vindicated by the Supreme Court in a suit filed by Peabody Coal to have the song removed from pending litigation against them.
With a chuckle, the very first singer/songwriter to ever read his work at the Library of Congress marvels, “All I was trying to do is tell the story about my mom’s hometown! If you were there, you saw the World’s Largest Shovel, tearing up this little town. The Federal Judge said my lyrics not only didn’t defame them, they were the truth… and he went on to quote them in his own summary.”
Not that John Prine ever intended to be a crusader. The aw-shucks Midwesterner is much more live-and-let-live by nature, but his idea of living includes making sure a society grown calloused doesn’t just throw people away. By showing – through the people in the songs – not telling, he’s built a wealth of songs that speaks to those margin dwellers he thinks matter (and occasionally skewer some of the ones he thinks could be doing a better job, like “Fair & Square”’s “Some Humans Aren’t Human”).
Prine was the kind of kid in school who was a dreamer with an active sense of creativity. As he says of the education process, “I really enjoyed English when I had a teacher who knew enough to leave you alone and let you follow your imagination. If they wanted me to memorize verbs, not so much, but if they asked me to write dialogue for two characters on an escalator, I’d go to town.”
On the verge of 70, that strong streak of whimsy and play remains. On “For Better, Or Worse,” Prine teams with another cadre of integrity roots singers to cull the vintage country songbook. After longtime duet partner Iris DeMent kicks things off with the bouncy sarcasm of “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out” – recalling their “In Spite of Ourselves” duet for Billy Bob Thornton’s “Daddy &Them” – Susan Tedeschi, Alison Krauss and Amanda Shires join Prine for “Color of the Blues,” “Falling In Love Again” and “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud, Loud Music.”
“I love singing with girls,” Prine enthuses, as much a fan of the individual vocalists as the vintage country they reclaim. “I could make those duet records all day, every day! Opera, all French, Spanish… To ALL The Girls I’ve Sung Before! Because I really like the sound of a guy and a girl going back and forth, you know? I’m not a ‘Bro’ sort of guy.”
Making the endeavor particularly sweet, after the death of his longtime manager, Oh Boy! Records has evolved into the family business. His Irish bride Fiona, who once ran U2’s Windmill Studios, now serves as his manager, and son Jody stepped in to run the label.
“That’s what I’m really working for now,” he admits. “Everything I do is for the kids and the grandkids, which feels nice… And I’ve got my family helping with the business. In fact, Fiona’s got me working harder than ever!”
“For Better, Or Worse” boasts its share of CMA Female Vocalists of the Year with Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Kathy Mattea and Lee Ann Womack. It also includes Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves, critics’ faves Holly Williams, Morgane Stapleton and the lovely Fiona Prine.
“When this started, Fiona and Jody told me I was doing the fourth side of “In Spite of Ourselves” for vinyl, so I did five songs,” Prine confides. “And then they said, ‘If you do another nine, we’re going to make it its own release.’ How do you argue with that thinking?”
Prine has always been sympatico with women. Whether it’s the past her prime barfly looking for love in “The Oldest Baby in the World,” the heroine of “Angel from Montgomery” or the heavy girl with the oddball beau in “Donald & Lydia,” he tempers his vision of those slightly broken females with kindness, awareness and a strong dose of empathy.
“Life’s that way, and who’s to say?” Prine says of the women in his songs. “(Angel)’s husband wasn’t abusive to her, he just didn’t talk much or pay her any attention, and it quietly drove her crazy – and back then people didn’t want to get divorced because of the kids or the stigma.
“I always thought I was writing more observations, anyway. The songs were the way people lived, how it looked to me, felt to me, smelled. And a lot of these songs, too, are about relationships, not so much man and woman, but more man to man or person to person.”
Discovered by Kris Kristofferson, when Prine’s best friend Steve Goodman opened for the man who wrote “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” the soon-to-be-movie star flew the pair of Chicago folkies to New York where they signed to big time record deals. Looking back, Prine marvels at how quickly he went from invisible mailman to being proclaimed “the new Dylan,” losing his ability to observe unnoticed.
Still, he’s done OK. Twenty albums – not including retrospectives – later, Prine remains a teller of truths and an impaler of, well, jerks. Getting ready to meet a friend at the Golden Cue for Happy Hour – “What happier place is there? All that neon just brings out the lies in people,” he says of the soon-to-be-closed billiards parlor in the Melrose neighborhood – he talks politics tempered with common sense.
“I don’t want to pick on one person,” Prine says. “I like to let people draw their own conclusions. Part of what the listener gets from the songs – that’s part of the song, what they bring to it. And I never want to hit people over the head, but maybe give them something they’ve seen before, maybe in different colors or another way. When you do that, they might see things differently.”
Pausing, his voice drops a little. While ever a gentleman, that doesn’t mean he’s wide-eyed and believes all people’s intentions mirror his. “I’m opinionated as anybody. I see people and envision what they’re life is like. I might be totally wrong, but as a writer, I try to come up with a good story. Raw imagination and good instincts might surprise you.”
He certainly wouldn’t have imagined playing the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks at the Grand Canyon with Emmylou Harris and President Obama. Nor would he have envisioned “In Spite of Ourselves” being the song that reunited Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog.
“Loads of people write me letters they got married to that song,” he says about the song that paints relationships in teeny, but exceedingly accurate detail. “But Kermit and Miss Piggy? It was the first time they talked together in over a year! They had to change a few words, but they sang it – and it brought them together.”
With a gleam in his eye, Prine confides, “People say Jack White did it, hanging with Kermit and talking about women. But I know it was the song that broke the ice.”
Merriment is something Prine cherishes. After three bouts with cancer, he takes every moment seriously. Wherever he is, he hopes to find the best part of it – and he also believes that to honor being alive, one must be true to the world around them, leave it a better place.
The craggy-voiced songwriter with the proclivity for old time music with bluegrass undertones has done charity shows for Room In The Inn, Thistle Farms and Campaign for a Landmine Free World. He’s also a big fan of The Contributor, and all it gives back to the community.
“The people are amazing who sell’ em,” he says. “My son and I were talking about it the other day, how they always have a smile on their face and a good word.”
Without missing a beat, he offers a perspective that has its dignity in place. “I know homeless people aren’t bums, Holly. They all got screwed out of something, ended up on the streets because of the times we live in – and nobody wants to talk about that part.
“That’s kind of why I wrote ‘Come Back To Us, Barbara Lewis (Hare Krishna Beauregard).’ She probably came from wealth of some kind, ran off to be a hippie, joined a religious cult, got married. She tried so many things, she forgot what she was looking for. It happens… It just does.”
Happy hour is drawing even nearer, and Prine has people to meet and eight ball to shoot. He’s already started writing new songs – “the regular records aren’t nearly as fun,” he concedes – and thinking about what kind of solo project he might make. Through all the tough times, challenges and losses, he’s managed to maintain some grace; it seems in many ways as if he’s never been happier. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost sight of the thread.
Image credit: Nielson Hubbard