Friday, April 08, 2005

John Prine: On the Outskirts of Paradise

A new article for Paste Magazine ...


And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
John Prine, “Paradise” (1971)

It’s not exactly Paradise. It is, in fact, Nashville – if not Hell, then at least Purgatory – where an aspiring songwriter lurks deep within the heart of every waiter, longing to be set free, and where stardom is only a Stetson hat and an open mic night away. But for John Prine, the gravel-voiced veteran songwriter, it is home. And these days, almost thirty-five years after his stunning debut album, it’s a home that is filled with unexpected joys and pleasures.

“My boys are nine and ten now,” Prine says. “And I do what every proud parent does. I go to Little League baseball games. I attend the school functions. And when I tour, I leave on Thursdays and return on Sundays to make sure I can be around during the school week. It’s not the most exciting life. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

The new, domesticated John Prine is in sharp contrast to the man who spent his twenties in an alcoholic haze. Now 59, his hair is short, hardly longer than the crewcut he must sported back in his Army days, and shot through with grey. The lines on his face reveal the years of hard living. The voice, always a rough and rugged instrument, has been made even coarser by the throat cancer surgery that derailed him at the end of the last millennium. But don’t be deceived. John Prine’s body may have been to hell and back, but this is the man who wrote “Please Don’t Bury Me” and bequeathed his stomach to Milwaukee should that city ever run out of beer. He will not go easily or without a fuss. Thank God. And he shows no signs of letting up now, although his legacy is formidable and cannot really be improved upon.

It’s been that way for a few decades now. John Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut album was a mindblower, a perfectly realized collection of songs from a musician already in his prime, one of the best singer/songwriter releases of all time that sounded impossibly wise, irreverently funny, and devastatingly sad, sometimes within the same song. “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There” and “Angel from Montgomery” captured the timeless heart of brokenness, loneliness, and loss, while “Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV)” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” showcased his wicked sense of humor and razor-sharp wit. It was a hard act to follow.

“I’d like to think I’m still relevant,” Prine says, thinking back on the musical detonation that was his first album. There are no worries on that front. As long as men and women struggle through loveless marriages, and jingoistic patriots still invoke the glory of the flag (hmm, could such a thing happen in 2005?) and old people still grow lonesome and need someone else to give them a voice, John Prine will remain relevant.

But the question remains. After you deliver a masterpiece at the ripe old age of 24, what do you do for an encore?

In John Prine’s case, you do just fine. You keep making music, you deliver a few more masterpieces along the way, and you string together a thirty-five year career with numerous musical highlights and no real musical low points.

Fair and Square arrived in late April, Prine’s seventeenth album, and his first album of original material in nine years. It’s the kind of album that Prine fans will instantly recognize and love – raucous, tender, funny, wise, and compassionate; the pointed political barbs tempered by the plain-spoken, aw-shucks demeanor that finds Prine more in the company of Will Rogers than Michael Moore.

“I’m kind of dug in by now,” Prine admits. “I’m not really going for a new sound. But I’d like to think I’m dug in about twenty different ways. I do like to mix it up; electric guitars and mandolins on the same song, Hammond B3 organ and pedal steel, bluegrass and rockabilly tossed in there, torch songs, country songs, a little Irish music, all thrown together.” Fair and Square is the typical eclectic Prine jambalaya, and it features the stellar fiddle playing and harmonies of Alison Krauss and the alt-country sass of Mindy Smith. It’s also the first Prine album produced by John Prine. “It’s a really hard job,” Prine says. “I wanted to do it, and I’m glad I did it. But I’m also glad Gary (Paczosa, who has engineered albums for Krauss and Smith) was around to help me out.”

There were a couple new releases between 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, Prine’s last album of original material, and Fair and Square. A live album drew primarily from Prine’s 1990s work, while a superb collection of classic country duets featured Prine’s trademark ragged, soulful vocals paired with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Iris Dement. But nine years is still a long time between stretches of new material. What took so long?

“Well, there was a little thing called throat cancer,” Prine says wryly. Amazingly, he laughs about it. “And what can I say? The writing just goes a lot slower these days. I don’t know why exactly, but it probably has something to do with my two boys, and how busy my life is. With Fair and Square I’d write two or three songs, then head to the studio to lay down some demos, and then six or nine months would go by, and then we’d do it again. Eventually we had an album. I used to just sit around and wait for lightning to strike, for the inspiration to fall on me. Now I actually have to work at it, and I get up in the morning and walk around with a yellow legal pad and jot down ideas as they come to me. I actually schedule time to work on songwriting, and that’s something I never used to do. But it’s still hard to schedule inspiration.”

Whatever it takes, John. Fair and Square has the classic Prine sound and the classic Prine biting wit. The tongue is firmly in cheek on “I Hate It When That Happens to Me” and the self-deprecating “Crazy as a Loon,” but bruised hearts and melancholy are never far from the surface, either, and “The Moon is Down” will surely be recognized as one of Prine’s saddest and most desolate songs. “Yeah, I’m kinda proud of this record,” he finally concedes after some prodding. “It’ll hold up, I think.”

You get the impression that he actually believes it. In an age of relentless self-promotion and raging egos, it’s hard to escape the notion that John Prine might be that rarest of musical creatures– someone who’s endured enough sorrow and experienced enough joy to figure out that there might be more to life than the latest CD promotion.

“I like the album a lot,” he tells me, trying to explain his relatively low-key reaction. “But look, I went through throat cancer surgery in 1998. It was a big deal. It was life threatening. I took a 14- or 15-month break from the music business and had radiation on my throat and vocal chords. And after that I had to drop the key down to sing a lot of my old songs. And it’s funny. They came out as something different than they’d been, almost something new. It’s weird, but I find that I’m enjoying them all over again. They’re like old friends who have changed, but who are still old friends. I travel around, play my songs, and I’m constantly amazed by the people who come to see me. They know all the words and sing along with me. They tell me later how much this or that song or album meant to them. That’s better than any CD release. That’s better than any Grammy award, for that matter. That’s why I do what I do.”

In March, Prine traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. to share the stage with Ted Kooser, the Poet Laureate of the United States. Before an appreciative audience he talked about the songwriting process, played several of those old friends, and soaked up the atmosphere. “I was really honored,” Prine says. “I brought my kids, and we had a great time. It was this old, very formal room, wooden pews, kind of like a church. And then I found out later that it was the same room where Alan Lomax recorded so many of the great artists; Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Honeyboy Edwards. It’s the room where Woody Guthrie recorded his Dust Bowl ballads. How cools is that?”

Characteristically, Prine didn’t include himself in the list of the greats. But there are those who know. For In Spite of Ourselves, his 1999 country duets album, Prine simply picked up the phone and started dialing. “I started calling my favorite female singers,” he said, “all the people I’d ever wanted to sing with. It was a crazy idea, but I just went for it. It didn’t matter what genre. I called Emmylou and Lucinda and Iris. I called Melba Montgomery, who used to sing with George Jones and Charlie Louvin and Gene Pitney. I called Delores Keane, the great Irish singer. And the first nine people I called said ‘Yes.’”

Prine sounds genuinely amazed, but it’s not hard to figure out. Some of the most talented women in music work with him for the same reason that his fans still show up at the concerts. The man knows how to write great songs. He’s been doing it for thirty-five years, and I’m curious to know how the process has changed, how he sees himself now in light of the precociously wise smart-ass who wrote that 1971 masterpiece.

“I barely know that guy anymore,” Prine answers, pondering his words to find just the right tone. “I’m about as far away from that person as I can be, and I can never go back to that place. And you know, I don’t really want to go back to that place. I was twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two years old when I was writing those songs. I was innocent in some ways, and full of myself in some ways, and I was headed for some trouble and some wild times. Now I go to bed at 10:00 or 10:30 and get up and drive my kids to school. The emotions are mostly the same, because that’s where the songs come from. The politics are probably about the same. But everything else is different.”

“Better different or worse different?” I ask him. He laughs, this cancer survivor, this musical poet laureate, and I know what his answer is going to be.

“Better different,” he says. “There’s no question. Better different.”

It’s not Paradise, but it’s something very, very good all the same. He apologizes, thanks me for the conversation, and tells me that he has to go now. It’s time to pick up the kids from school.

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