John Prine (illustration by Andy Friedman)
Certain songs are as much American landmarks as any historic structure assembled from stone, brick, or wood. While most folk, bluegrass and country recordings usually sit upon a foundation of verse-chorus-verse, good songwriters are wily architects and carpenters too. In the annals of this country's great builders of songs, John Prine is an indisputable master.
The tattered, tender and tough characters who amble through his richly-hued albums and songs are crafted with empathy and nuance, like a lost and befuddled Jesus (1991's "Jesus the Missing Years" from The Missing Years), a homesick inmate (1973's "Christmas in Prison" from Sweet Revenge), or a lonely, elderly couple (1971's "Hello in There" off of his debut album, John Prine). There are murders ("Six O'Clock News," "Lake Marie") and fractured love affairs ("Love Love Love," "Only Love"), but most of all, there's a droll, gruff, and always honest point of view.
Just reeling off the titles of Prine's output is a dazzling reminder of his understated genius: "Angel From Montgomery," "Lake Marie," "That's The Way That the World Goes Round," "Souvenirs," "Sam Stone," and scores more. While trotting out the term "a musician's musician" is often a hackneyed term, it's dead true where Prine is concerned. He's been a divine inspiration across generations, treasured by collaborators, friends, and admirers, like Bonnie Raitt, Steve Goodman (his early champion and frequent producer), Sturgill Simpson, Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, Susan Tedeschi, Kris Kristofferson (who gave Prine his first big break), Emmylou Harris, Margo Price, Bob Dylan and Joe Henry.
He is an exquisite writer, but balks when his lyrics are compared to poetry. “If I wanted to be a poet, I’d write poetry. I know what poetry is. I’m not writing poetry, I’m writing song lyrics," he told the Guardian in 2016. "Whatever the subject is, I’m trying to write as well about that subject as I possibly can but still within the confines of a song. I’m not trying to put my words down as a poem set to music. To me, that’s a different thing. But I like the idea of it being accepted.” But despite his humble protestations, that same year Prine received PEN/New England's Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award; a perfect accolade for a man who Raitt has called "the closest thing for those of us that didn't get the blessing of seeing Mark Twain in person."
Oh, grandpa wore his suit to dinner
Nearly every day
No particular reason
He just dressed that way
Brown necktie and a matching vest
Both his wingtip shoes
He built a closet on our back porch
And put a penny in a burned-out fuse
Grandpa was a carpenter
He built houses, stores and banks
Chain-smoked Camel cigarettes
And hammered nails in planks
He was level on the level
And shaved even every door
And voted for Eisenhower 'cause Lincoln won the war
- "Grandpa Was a Carpenter," Sweet Revenge (1973)
Growing up as a working class boy in the suburbs of Chicago, the son of a tool-and-die maker and a homemaker, Prine learned how to play the guitar from his older brother. Although raised on country music, it was the discovery of Dylan and Cash that became his bliss, steering him down the road of songwriting. There were plenty of tangents on that jagged road — from duty as an Army mechanical engineer to years as postman (he'd compose in his head while delivering mail) — until a series of hometown open mic nights and subsequent bookings at Chicago folk clubs launched his career. (Along with the Cubs and deep dish pizza, Prine is rightfully one of Chicago's most treasured underdogs.)
The musician's colorful 46-year arc from John Prine to 2016's collection of duets and country covers, For Better, or Worse, has borne sobering setbacks too; Prine has faced cancer twice — the first time in 1996 and again in 2013. While each health battle has affected his physicality, his energy and his voice, it has never tempered or muffled his spirit or drive.
Prine, who turned 71 on October 10, is back on the road this autumn, playing with an array of friends on selected dates like Dan Auerbach, Kacey Musgraves, and Amanda Shires. He's still promoting 2016's For Better, or Worse, but his entire catalog is incentive enough to see the man. And aspiring songwriters take note: Prine's first official songbook, John Prine Beyond Words, includes handwritten lyrics and photographs from his archives. He'll also honor his longtime friend and champion, songwriter and producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame on October 27.
An American treasure who doesn't always get the attention and accolades he deserves, John Prine is an FUV Essentials artist.
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#FUVEssentials: John Prine (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Rita Houston)