“I think I have some empathy in my DNA,” John Prine says, voice like crinkled brown paper. “I don’t know where it comes from, except my mother and my father and the things they went through. But something inside, I just feel things… And it’s funny when I think I’m writing a song, or I think I’m writing about someone else, then the more I listen, the more I find something in my own life. That’s the hope: Your songs give people compassion for others.”
John Prine has been sowing compassion since his 1971 self-titled debut on Atlantic Records. Whether the junkie vet who dies alone in “Sam Stone,” the forgotten old people in “Hello in There,” the woman whose middle age has deemed her undesirable in “The Oldest Baby in the World” or the teenage girl sent away to have a baby alone in “Unwed Fathers,” the former Chicago postman understands the conflicts, cast-offs and unwanted truths about modern life.
Never prolific, he jokes about his standards for what makes a song work. That first album was deemed an instant classic, each song a masterclass on humanity, detail and the way life catches and never turns out like you’d think. It also crowned Prine the first in a string of “new Dylans,” a term in his case that speaks to quality and the poetry of his work. Many years ago, sitting at a low-light table at a Hollywood watering hole known for its Italian food, no less than Bob Dylan crossed the crowded restaurant to say “Hello.” It takes a certain kind of writer to get the fabled legend to speak, let alone come to him.
John Prine is that kind of writer.
“I’ve written good songs, really good songs on my other records that I haven’t sung in 30 years,” he explains. “So that makes me feel like I need to raise my standards even more. The pressure to measure up looms up like a cloud… and you have to come up with a different kind of good.” He chuckles the way ice sounds in a glass. Acknowledging the impact of John Prine, he allows, “I’ve always tried to do that, since my second album. Not compete with that first album, because there was a real innocence to those songs.
“But as soon as record companies get a hold of you, that wonder’s gone. When I wrote those first songs, I was real critical, and thought ‘Sam Stone’ was such a weird song, people might just pass it off as some soldier with a hole in his arm [referencing the lyric: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes…”].
“You start traveling the world, everything changes — and you don’t know that guy who made that first record, or wrote those songs. He’s long gone, and you have to figure it out with everything all those people who’re trying to tell you.”
Prine more than figured it out. With eight Grammy nominations — one for each album since the first Contemporary Folk category and 1972’s Best New Artist, and wins for 1991’s The Missing Years and 2005’s Fair & Square — his standards are unassailable. Perhaps that’s why the Chicago-born, Kentucky-visiting and Nashville-living artist became the first songwriter to read at the Library of Congress. He shared a Pen Award for literary achievement with Tom Waits and was awarded the Mark Twain Award for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. A member of Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame, he’s also the 2017 Americana Artist of the Year.
Part of his appeal is that empathy he speaks of. Compassion, awareness, seeing the unnoticed and lifting them up are all hallmarks of the songwriter who learned guitar from his older brother and grew up playing Hank Williams’ songs for his father. Listening to Prine, people feel less alone. The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album in almost fourteen years, comes at a time when America seems to need it. Produced by Dave Cobb, known for his work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlisle, he helped sculpt the ten songs into sonic landscapes that are lean, yet capture the emotion and power of both the melody and the lyric.
“He was very hands on,” Prine explains. “He didn’t want demos, and he didn’t want to listen to all the songs at once. He listened one at a time, and the changes he made, they really changed how we did them. We cut with just bass and drums, so it was minimal. But every time, we took something away, the sound got bigger. It was just terrific!”
Whether mining a recent collaboration like the demi-caustic “Caravan of Fools,” written with frequent co-writer Pat McLaughlin and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, or the decades old Phil Spector collaboration “God Only Knows,” every song got buffed and fluffed before it made it to the studio. Because he's a notorious procrastinator, Prine’s wife and now manager Fiona sent him to the Omni for a week to finish out the songs for an album.
“Fiona knows I work better out of a hotel room, so I took 10 boxes of unfinished lyrics, and checked in. (The Omni)’s attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame, so I could duck out from time to time. Bob’s Pork Chop Place has a nice clientele in the bar in the evening, including a couple guys who work for the Symphony … and I could work, and break.
“I thought I had about four songs that were okay. So I wrote a bridge and a chorus for that Phil Spector song, and my friend Roger Cook and I had a song I’d forgotten about from a Buddy Holly phase he was going through 30 years ago called 'I Have Met My Love Today.' At one point, I called Dan, who I’d written six things for what I thought was his solo album, and said, ‘I’m going to Prine a couple of these up.’ I used pork chops instead of fruit in one song, and there’s a verse about my heart bouncing around like a washing machine.
“I wasn’t thinking about me,” he adds, as a bus full of music fans rolls by on a slow Sunday. “But I guess (when I listened), I came shining through.”
He certainly does shine. The Tree of Forgiveness exudes the kind of warmth that crawls inside as one listens. There is — as always — social commentary, but there’s also that notion of being recognized and embraced for who you are. “Summer’s End,” which features Brandi Carlisle, is wistful. Images tumble against each other, but the loneliness — and love — shine through. Sad, but somehow comforting, Prine intones a chorus of “Come on home” over and over in that old flannel and gravel voice.
“We didn’t know where we were heading when we were writing,” Prine says of his every Tuesday writing appointment with McLaughlin. “I throw an image out, and if he likes it, he throws one back. When I write a good sad one that hits the mark, well, you feel it. And ‘Summer’s End’ is one of those songs that’s almost an invitation, or reminder, to someone who feels lost.
“It seems to me, and I’m not sure if it’s the age or the generation, but even more people have these different stories that don’t end the same, but seem to all be where the people return. Maybe it’s to your family, or your beginning, or even your knowledge of something you learned. We all need that.
“Hopefully, Thanksgiving’s not the only invitation for most people. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Prine, who’s active with Room In The Inn and Thistle Farms, recognizes that being invited is critical. He wishes the world would be a more accepting place, putting a premium on kindness and what in the Midwest would be considered basic decency and being informed.
“I really like The Contributor,” he says. “And what it does. I love that there’s an interview component, especially here in Music City, where people really like to read these kinds of interviews. They can get something they want, a little deeper maybe, and it helps others.”
Prine, who is not political, is also aware that showing’s not telling. As a man who once wrote “Some Human’s Ain’t Human” about a certain politician, he is slightly mortified and yet highly aware “Caravan of Fools” could easily be read as inspired by our current administration.
“The only subject was impending doom, and because it was in a minor key, it has that ominous feeling,” Prine begins. “I went to record it, and realized what you’re saying. But the truth is, I have two co-writers, and I have no idea what they were thinking, especially since this written long before the election.”
He turns the notion over in his head. He thinks about the values he was raised on as the son of a homemaker and a union healer in Maywood, Ill., the grandson of a Paradise, Ky., carpenter. As a man married to an Irish bride, who spends a fair amount of time “across the sea,” he’s also aware sometimes he writes the future.
“I get it,” he marvels. “So much so, when I did my (NPR) Tiny Desk Concert, I did a disclaimer ‘cause I was a couple blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To have someone who’s so mean-spirited, who hates immigrants — because we weren’t from here, we all came from somewhere except the Native Americans — is not the way I grew up.” He pauses again. Prine doesn’t like to judge, but he knows what sits heavy on his heart. An honest day’s work, a family you can count on, the love of a good woman are his compass.
“When we started Oh Boy, everyone thought we were crazy. I was still being offered major label contracts,” Prine recalls of the decision to pave the DIY way in 1983. “People thought we were crazy, but I just didn’t want to get caught up in that game.”
Thirty years later, Prine was still an outlier. Prine was also evolving into a legend after being one of America’s most respected singer/songwriters. More deals would come, but the man who wrote “Angel From Montgomery,” quickly becoming a 21st century standard, stayed firm. When longtime manager Al Bunetta died in 2015, Fiona realized Oh, Boy! might have been functioning, but the cupboard was bare. A veteran of running U2’s Windmill Studios in Dublin, she has a keen mind for evolving technology — and knew modernizing was critical for survival.
“I don’t get away with as much,” Prine concedes. “It’s harder to say “No” to Jody or Fiona, but I know they have the family’s best interest at heart, that they know this music — and see what the future can be for it. I love the fact that when I’m working now, it’s for my kids and grandkids.”
Beyond singularizing their distribution, focusing on social media — where John has gone from 67,000 followers to over 6 million — and telling the story, they’ve also built bridges to younger artists who cite the aw shucks Chicagoan as an influence. Last year, Bon Iver hosted “John Prine & the American Songbook” at his annual festival in Eaux Claire, and anchored an all-star finale with Prine at the Newport Folk Festival. “Jody knows music — and everybody he’s tried to set me up with,” Prine begins, “turns out I was already an influence on their songwriting. More so than I ever thought. But it’s fun, too. Just writing with different people… and playing music.
“Jason (Isbell) volunteered to come open some shows, and I found out he was playing those same places on his own two and three nights. Bon Iver’s a sweetheart; I met his parents and they told me they listened to my songs on car trips when he was growing up. He invited me to his festival in Wisconsin, and had 12sho acts get up and sing one of my songs. Stuff like that’s just great.”
For a guy who played his first songs for people at a fishing hole in North Central Arkansas at 14-years-old, not even sure what he was doing, life’s turned out okay. “I remember sitting on a folding chair, and people sitting around. I played ’em some old-timey things, then I played ’em ‘Sour Grapes’ and ‘The Frying Pan’ (both on Diamonds in the Rough, his second album) – and they liked ‘em. Didn’t know what it meant, but I liked it, too.”