I'm not at all sure what "folk" music is, but I know country when I hear it. Like Lucinda Williams, John Prine was never a charting country artist. Perhaps that's because of their somewhat ragged and eccentric voices, though big country stars had hits with songs from both. Like Williams, Prine has been revered and emulated for decades among the best artists in Nashville and Austin. And as a performer who wrote most of his own songs,Prine is matched in the history of country music only by Hank Williams (other rivals in this regard: Merle, Willie, Lucinda, Taylor).
I do love the rough-hewn voice (which sounds like it emerges from his ancestral Kentucky rather than his native Chicago), the finger-picking Piedmont-style blues guitar, the rough-and-alive feel of all the recordings. But it's the writing that kills me and everyone else: its thematic scope, its entire unpretentiousness, its poignancy and hilarity. Who can do that? As a songwriter, Williams (who's got an album coming out this week) is a good comparison, but Prine definitely has the advantage comedically. He's a kind of William Carlos Williams: so very American, a lover of the everyday life of his countrymen, plain-spoken, wised up or naively idealistic, insistently specific. WCW, writing like Prine:
This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
My circle of little hippie friends in DC worshiped Prine circa 1973, and received his first three classic albums ecstatically. We thought of his voice as our own voice. We sang his songs at coffee shops. We went and saw him whenever he came to town, which was quite often, perhaps opening for or being opened for by Bonnie Raitt.
But after my teenage obsession with Prine, I kind of lost track. By the time he put out Common Sense in 1975, I was moving from hippie toward punk. Also I didn't think it was as amazingly strong as the first three albums, and Prine had suddenly gonemusically eclectic in various ways. Maybe I bought the next couple too, almost for old times' sake, and then abandoned Prine until the 2000s. Looking back, I still think that the first three albums represent the kind of creative pinnacle that artists get one of if they are extremely fortunate or blessed. On the other hand, almost everything he ever did was worthwhile; he wrote great songs throughout. Going back and filling all the holes and listening to the whole body of work, now complete, has brought comfort, and flashes of joy, to my isolation.
Perhaps by the mid-1970s he was a bit uncomfortable with being greeted as a genius and with being the 17th (albeit best) new Dylan. He doesn't strike me as a person who wanted worship, but we did worship him. I think he consciously chose to just write good songs and frame them in whatever production seemed right or convenient. He wanted to be a good professional artist and explore various aspects of American music and poetry, but he didn't want to be a god. That's why, as I say, if it's poetry, it's entirely unpretentious. He was uncorrupted by fame; he made sure of that. But he also pulled back from crafting masterpieces.
What I'll do here is run through all the studio albums, omitting various live albums, rarities and outtakes, the Christmas album, etc: you've got to draw the line somewhere for God's sake.
John Prine (1971)
I think you can see why he'd be a hippie divinity, for example in the lyric of "Spanish Pipedream":
Blow up your TV
Throw away your paper
Move to the country
Build you a home
Plant a little garden
Eat a lot of peaches
Try to find Jesus on your own
Except for “Jesus,” who’s okay as long as you find him on your own, this is the kind of hippie we Washingtonians took ourselves to be. Plus there were “head” songs such as “Illegal Smile” and the powerful anti-war songs "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore" and the stunning "Sam Stone." About "Angel from Montgomery," which she of course recorded and which they often performed together, Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone “The fact this very young man could inhabit this middle-aged woman and make it so real and so cinematic, it just touched me so deeply. I know 'I Can’t Make You Love Me' has the Grammy wins and all that, but 'Angel From Montgomery' will be the song that means the most to me and my fans, I think."
Who in popular music was writing, or had ever written, in the personae of various characters, with this sort of intensity, reaching across all sorts of lines? We might call the spirit “Faulknerian.” "Ain't it funny how an old broken bottle/looks just like a diamond ring," he sang on Far From Me, in a line that could serve as a summary of his aesthetic. He was always intent on finding the beauty in modest fragments of reality, or in the apparently degraded (such as "Donald and Lydia"); from first to last, he takes as his theme, and accomplishes, the redemption of ordinary life.
Diamonds in the Rough (1972)
That he came back a year after that masterpiece with this suite of songs—"Souvenirs" and "Clocks and Spoons," for example—seems impossible; like I say, a Hank-style efflorescence, and it maintains a level of emotional intensity that had to be exhausting. Like, are you really going to try to break everyone's heart including your own every four minutes for the rest of your life? He established his sound on this album: very rough-hewn vocals, basically accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with a rough rootsy live-feeling band coming in and out. Prine always gave the impression that you were listening to a first take, which he knew was flawed and also believed was perfect. I'm going to try not to grind my anti-Dylan axe (I assert Prine to be far his superior as a writer). But Prine's vocal style is unlikely without Dylan and at times the accompaniment recalls what the Band was doing at the time. But Prine also has gut-bucket country mode that's non-Dylan, as in Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You and the title cut. If they were both poets, Dylan was a surrealist to Prine's realist. When he does a protest song here ("Take the Star Out of the Window"), he does it in the persona of a Vietnam vet.
These first two albums were great works of art. They didn't show the full range, however, even of Prine the lyricist; in particular they only hinted (for example in "Frying Pan") at the wit and comedy that started to emerge on the next album.
Sweet Revenge (1973)
This is the album that brought me to Prine; it was on heavy rotation on WHFS in DC, and I was 15; I filled in the first two albums retroactively. It's a masterpiece (the third in three years!) that now shows an expanded range of lyric themes and approaches. I was particularly pleased at the time by comedy routines like "Dear Abby" or "Please Don't Bury Me." A particularly inimitable moment is "The Accident," in which he narrates a routine fender-bender at a four-way stop as though it was an epic or a murder ballad; he does it with a lovely lilt and great humor ("two cars collided, and I got excited, just being part of that scene"). He doesn't take even his own songs particularly seriously, but he loves ordinary American life. To juxtapose pieces like that with some of the most straightforwardly beautiful and profound songs in the canon—Blue Umbrella, "Christmas in Prison"—well, it's just stunning.
We might call the range “Shakespearean” at this point: the mystery arises of how the same man could write the tragedies and the comedies. The lyric range is, however, matched by a bit of sameness in the song structure and instrumentation; soon he was trying to mix it up a little, or at least frame similar songs in different styles. By this time, too, I was listening to a bunch of George Jones and Merle Haggard and I heard songs like "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" as squarely in that country vein. It's obvious here, if it hadn't been with "Paradise" on the debut, that Prine was saturated thoroughly in the history of country music. Really what he always wanted to write was country love songs. But they always have an underlying element of ordinary truth.
She reminds me of a chess game with someone I admire
Or a picnic in the rain after a prairie fire
Her heart is as big as this whole goddamn jail
And she's sweeter than saccharine at a drug store sale
Common Sense (1975)
As I say, I was disappointed by this album at the time: rather bitterly so, which is an index of how into Prine I was at that moment. It was produced in Memphis by Steve Cropper with various stars (Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, etc.) coming in and out of the studio. It definitely moves toward a soul and rock rather a folk frame, with much more elaborate arrangements than previously, though it includes all sorts of roots touches as well as some bizarre... mistakes, such as the calypso of "Forbidden Jimmy." Believe it or not he throws some disco into a tribute to "Ghost Riders in The Sky" called "Saddles in the Rain."
It's like he's saying: don't make me your hero, hippie kid. The lyrics have flashes, but sometimes seem to have been drafted by a far more conventional writer. I picture Prine in this period, as I say, as a bit tired of his own genius reputation, and trying to figure out how to settle in for an enduring career. I just want to forgive Prine posthumously and say that there are a bunch of good country-rock and country-soul songs here, such as "Middle Man," in which he or his character threatens to send his kids off to Pakistan, or the cultic ballad "Come Back to us Barbara Lewis, Hare Krishna Beauregard." And he's still Prine: "You come on like a one-armed child with a hole in his shoe," or "He Was in Heaven Before He Died," which would have been perfectly at home on Diamonds in the Rough.
Bruised Orange (1978)
I was disappointed with this one too upon its release, and by then it was Clash and Ramones on my turntable. But in this case I was just mistaken: this is a quietly great album, produced by Steve Goodman, with whom Prine co-wrote You Never Even Called Me By My Name for David Allan Coe. If in the mid-70s he was trying to settle in for the long term, he’d done that by '78. I'm a little puzzled by the emphasis on flute or penny whistle. But even so, this is a straight country album. Check "There She Goes," for example: a return to lyrical form, featuring basic and professional Nashville arrangements that don't lose the spontaneity and live feel. He moved to Nashville around when he made this record, just because there were so many good musicians there and perhaps because he was already venerated there as a writer. The song construction got more sophisticated even in the constant reversion to roots. He also started to write songs that might be regarded as "standards," clear and relatively simple and perfect compositions.
I was sitting in the back just counting my toes
when the radiator broke and the water all froze
I got stuck in the attic without any clothes,
naked as the eyes of a clown. . .
That's the way the world goes round.
Pink Cadillac (1979)
He decided to make a tribute to early rock 'n’ roll and rockabilly, recorded it at Sun studios in Memphis, and for the first time did a bunch of covers: pretty obscure rock songs (the great Ubangi Stomp, for example, the closer here) make up five of the 10 tracks. Unhappily, you can't understand a lot of what he sings. So though the flavor of the record is aggressive, it's self-effacing, as though Prine just wants to be the singer in a rock band; I'm not sure that's where his talent really lays. One looks back, however, and says “Why not?” If you know you've got a 50-year career going (no one does before they get there, but it happens), why not try some experiments or just do what you want and see if it works out? Anyway, electric-guitar oriented rock music, still with all kinds of strands of influence, including Dylan (who was also pretty eclectic in this period) and maybe Jerry Lee Lewis. Sam Phillips produced the track "Saigon" (another veteran's story) and famously claimed to have intentionally blown out the guitar speaker from the board in the middle of the recording. "How Lucky (Can One Man Get) "brings us back around to complex plainness and realistic optimism.
Storm Windows (1980)
Right back at it and in classic form, though also still working in a few songs by other writers. It immediately outdoes Pink Cadillac with a funny country boogie, Shop Talk. Here Prine shows a strategy he'd already exploited but which came to dominate his writing more and more and which became his poetry: he'd take a vernacular slice of language—"Let's stop. Let's not talk shop in front of all these guys"—and show its humor and its profundity simultaneously, while playing all around the alliteration. Sometimes he built songs almost out of lists of these. So he's picking up where Bruised Orange left off, but with a somewhat bigger rock sound. This album has some of Prine's best lyrics and melodies: "It's Happening to You," "Sleepy-Eyed Boy," and "One Red Rose." These are relatively little-heard Prine songs. Storm windows constitute good Prine imagism: metaphors that you never knew that you already knew. One nice lyric:
We are living in the future,
I'll tell you how I know.
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago.
We're all driving rocket ships
And talking with our minds,
Wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines
We are standing in soup lines.
Aimless Love (1984)
By this time Prine was co-writing country songs in Nashville; they’re often beautiful compositions, though understandably not as idiosyncratic as Prine solo. Here he shares credits, among others, with Shel Silverstein and Spooner Oldham. He self-released the record on his Oh Boy label after recording it on a shoestring, though with Nashville session players. Perhaps Lucinda Williams was working in a similar way at that moment in the same town: recording albums partly as demos and peddling both the songs and her own recordings, assembling whatever studio time could be arranged cheaply.
The classic country song "Unwed Fathers" from this record was cut by Tammy Wynette, maybe her last great song. "From a teenage lover to an unwed mother, kept undercover like some bad dream. But unwed fathers can't bothered; they run like water through a mountain stream." Any artist in Nashville would’vedone well just to record all these songs as his next release. "The Oldest Baby in the World" starts out seeming like it's going to be an "insult-the-ex" song, and ends with "her head so full of hope and her heart so full of wonder." He's still on his quest to write a perfect standard: "Somewhere Someone's Falling in Love" ought to get there eventually.
German Afternoons (1986)
Seems oddly titled for a Nashville studio album, as though Oh Boy records didn't actually want to sell anybody anything. But this is one of his best records (except maybe for "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian") and not only for eventually-beloved "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness."
You come home late and you come home early
You come on big when you're feeling small
You come home straight and you come home curly
Sometimes you don't come home at all.
It's a traditional country theme, wound through Prine's unique warp and woof, as is "If She Were You," co-written by Goodman, who died a year before Prine recorded it. The band has stabilized into an excellent bluegrass/acoustic ensemble including Sam Bush on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Roy Husky on bass: the New Grass Revival, more or less. Maybe only Prine writes a traditional country song called "Linda Goes to Mars."
The standards continue to emerge, as in "I Just Want to Dance With You," a #1 country hit for George Strait. Robert Christgau said that this album was where Prine "comes out and admits he's a folkie" (that is, backs off the rock 'n’ roll) but I don't think hardcore country songs, or the hits of George Strait, are folk music, which is a simulation of this sort of thing. At this point, if a Prine song isn’t perfectly crafted, it's an intentional effect, a way to hold on to the realness. I can see why he wanted to re-cut "Paradise" with Bush and Duncan, but still it seems comparatively perfunctory.
The Missing Years (1991)
The title track is "Jesus: The Missing Years," some kind of wild country-rock opera, featuring "swimming pools and orgies," with the savior eventually opening for George Jones. Prine entered the CD era at this point with 14 cuts after a five-year break. This album features the steadiest production quality of Prine's career, created by Tom Petty's guy Howie Epstein, who did the next one too. It was recorded in LA and features a ridiculous group of Prine fans: Petty, Raitt, Springsteen, Mellencamp, etc. Maybe the production is too excellent, and the record misses a bit of the improvisational, people-sitting-around-playing vibe of a lot of the previous material. But there are many great lyrics, such as "Sins of Memphisto":
Sally used to play with hula hoops
Now she tells her problems to therapy groups
Grandpa's on the front lawn staring at a rake
Wondering if his marriage was a terrible mistake
I'm sitting on the front steps drinking orange crush
Wondering if it's possible that I can still blush.
It's a Big Old Goofy World strings together a series of commonplace phrases and folk sayings into a sweet, touching, and funny thing.
If you lie like a rug and don't give a damn,
you're never gonna be as happy as you planned.
So I'm sitting in a hotel room
just trying to write a song.
My head is as empty
as the day is long.
It's clear as a bell
I should have gone to school
I'd be wise as an owl
Instead of as stubborn as mule.
Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings (1995)
There's three hundred men
In the state of Tennessee
They're waiting to die
They won't never be free
I ain't hurtin' nobody
I ain't hurtin' no one.
There's roosters layin' chickens
And chickens layin' eggs
Farm machinery eating people's arms and legs.
I ain't hurtin' nobody,
I ain't hurtin' no one.
And it's true: at worst, John Prine was probably relatively harmless—especially as compared to electric chairs and tractor accidents—and at his best he made a lot of lives just a little better and weirder and more fun and cleverer. This is basically an extension of Missing Years, with Epstein again at the controls. It seems steady as a clock, as Prine had settled into a writing, touring, recording rhythm, collecting Grammy nominations and the like. "We Are the Lonely," featuring wah-wah guitar, might be considered an anticipation of coronavirus isolation, though it ends with a wild series of personal ads:
White divorced swinging male
Seeks company to no avail
Worthless, ruthless, toothless man
Wants wealthy woman with a plan
SWF with a PhD
Seeks TLC at the AT&T
GWM, nice and trim
Seeks S E X at the G Y M
Ugly man treats girls like dirt
Wants buttons sewn upon his shirt.
Also includes Dylan's favorite Prine song, "Lake Marie." I love the small simple love song "Day is Done": just Prine and his guitar with a song that would have fit beautifully on John Prineor Sweet Revenge. P.S., "The devil is looking for the next poor fool who forgot that it was Sunday."
In Spite of Ourselves (1999) and For Better, or Worse (2016)
These male/female duet collections are lovely, mostly consisting of covers of historical country duets, performed by Prine with people like Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Kacey Musgraves, Kathy Mattea, Amanda Shires, Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert. Even by 1999 Prine's health was an issue; he’d undergone surgery for throat cancer. Afterwards, his voice was even rougher and realer, and somehow through it all he kept writing as well. He seemed almost happy to lose the last semblance of youthful handsomeness; he'd always celebrated the non-attractive.
Probably the first of these albums is better, overall. Prine and Dement, in particular, were sort of made for each other, and the high point of the two albums is the Prine original In Spite of Ourselves, sung with Dement, one of his most ecstatic and realistic and hilarious love songs. Maybe Prine hired researchers, but one way or another he comes up with some pretty obscure kitschy gems from the golden age of the country duet: Mental Cruelty, for example, a minor hit for Buck Owens and Rose Maddox, which becomes by turns disturbing and very funny as he puts it down with Kacey Musgraves. George and Tammy are the primary sources, however. Kacey for years wore a wristband that said WWJPD: "What Would John Prine Do?"
Fair and Square (2005)
I guess we have to consider this as the beginning of the final phase. I came back to Prine, hard and fully, with this album, and realized how much I cared and how big a hole no Prine had left in my listening life. Then I started back-filling the missing decades. The emphasis here is on direct expressions of love, no doubt aimed at his wife Fiona; they'd had a couple of lovely songs together on the duet albums. "She is My Everything" is a classic, also "I Hate it When it Happens to Me" and "Other Side of Town." There are moments of exhausted bitterness too, as in "Some Humans Ain't Human": "when a cowboy from Texas starts a war with Iraq." It features one of my favorite Prine songs, "Safety Joe": funny, quotidian, redemptive: in short, Prine.
Well, he never got too lonely
And he never got too sad
But he never got too happy
And that's what's just too bad
He never reached much further
Than his lonely arms would go
He wore a seatbelt around his heart
And they called him Safety Joe
By this point, Prine's in no doubt about who he is musically and what he does best; that's what we might hope for from aging: if all goes well (or maybe, disastrously), you settle fully into yourself, or reconcile yourself to yourself. Taking a walk might help. Or a bus ride.
I'm goin' down to the Greyhound Station
Gonna buy a ticket to ride
I'm gonna find that lady with two or three kids
And sit down by her side
Ride 'til the sun comes up and down around me
'Bout two or three times
Smokin' cigarettes in the last seat
Sing this song for the people I meet
And get along with it all
Go where the people say "y'all"
Sing a song with a friend
Change the shape that I'm in
And get back in the game
And start playin' again
He's still writing jazzy standards, too, as in Morning Train:"'Constantinople' is a mighty long word; it's got three more letters than 'mockingbird.'"
The Tree of Forgiveness (2018)
With all the health problems and (as we now know) the looming prospect of his death with or without coronavirus, we're just lucky to have this valediction. There was always a simple sort of spirituality pervading Prine's work, compatible with irony or blasphemy; here it emerges fully and sincerely. One thing to notice is that even with all the peacenik and life-among-the-downtrodden themes in the Prine's work, he's consistently not quite PC. He shows that in the nice comedy about the current mood "The Lonesome Friends of Science."
The lonesome friends of science say
"The world will end most any day"
Well, if it does, then that's okay
'Cause I don't live here anyway
I live down deep inside my head
Well, long ago I made my bed
I get my mail in Tennessee
My wife, my dog, my kids, and me
Poor ol' planet Pluto now
He never stood a chance no how
When he got uninvited to
The interplanetary dance
Once a mighty planet there
Now just an ordinary star
Hangin' out in Hollywood
In some ol' funky sushi bar
I find that, when an artist I love dies, I don't necessarily want to marinate in their work or write it all up at that moment, but Prine's death sent me into a bit of a tailspin, no doubt partly as a symbol of all the struggles we’re all undergoing at the momentin some form. But then listening to Prine from beginning to endreminded me of so many things—songs, for example, and the things and people that songs are about—that I've loved. Prine's own expressions of love always came with a bit of melancholy and bit of hope. This is "Summer's End," from the last album:
Summer's end's around the bend just flying
The swimming suits are on the line just drying
I'll meet you there per our conversation
I hope I didn't ruin your whole vacation
Well you never know how far from home you're feeling
Until you watch the shadows cross the ceiling
Well I don't know but I can see it snowing
In your car the windows are wide open
Just come on home
Come on home
No you don't have to be alone
Just come on home
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell