John Prine

TrackAlbum
Hello In ThereJohn Prine
ParadiseJohn Prine
The Great CompromiseDiamonds In The Rough
SouvenirsGreat Days: John Prine Anthology
Blue UmbrellaSweet Revenge
Sabu Visits The Twin Cities AloneBruised Orange
Speed Of The Sound Of LonelinessGerman Afternoons
All The BestThe Missing Years
Lake MarieLost Dogs and Mixed Blessings
My Darlin'’ HometownFair & Square

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

John Prine was one of the first, and (along with Bruce Springsteen) probably the best of the numerous ‘new Dylans’ who emerged in the early 1970s. Prine’s status in this regard had been further enhanced in September 1972 when the ‘Old’ Bob appeared with him on stage in New York and contributed backing vocals and played harmonica on three songs. Dylan continues to be an admirer of Prine’s work and performed his song People Putting People Down in concert on a number of occasions in the early 1990s.

Unlike some of the other new Dylans, however, the release of Prine’s debut album in 1971 revealed that. while he had undoubtedly been influenced by Dylan, he was a major artist in his own right with a distinctive voice of his own. Indeed, it could be argued that the album, John Prine, still stands out as one of the great debut albums in the history of rock music. The songs on it were uniformly excellent and I could have included several more of them here. The album also introduced several traits which were to be characteristic of Prine’s writing from that point on. The first of these was a wry wit (Illegal Smile and Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore were, perhaps, the best example of these on the record), the second, an instinctive empathy with those characters in his songs whose lives had stalled in some way and who, it was clear, would never achieve those dreams that they had had in their youth (Donald And Lydia and Angel From Montgomery were fine examples of this) and, third, a kind of infectious delight in wordplay (including some deliberately terrible puns and jokes) for its own sake.

The best of Prine’s songs also featured a potent fusion of his early influences, which included country music (Hank Williams and Merle Haggard were among his early heroes) and folk music. Like Woody Guthrie’s songs, many of Prine’s best songs also had a deceptive simplicity, and their subtleties and layers of meaning were only to become apparent with repeated listenings. Along with these influences, Prine also had been a fan of early rock and roll and rockabilly and these enthusiasms were to be particularly apparent on albums such as Pink Cadillac, (which was recorded at the Sam Phillips recording studio in Memphis and produced by two of Phillips’ sons, released in 1979), and in his fine rockabilly version of the Carter Family’s Bear Creek Blues on his 2005 album, Fair & Square.

The first song I have chosen here, Hello In There, is, perhaps, the track on Prine’s debut album which shows his trademark combination of wit and empathy at its best, although Sam Stone, one of the best songs about the struggles of Vietnam war veterans ever written, runs it pretty close. The second track I have selected from the album, Paradise, is a very early environmental song and it remains one of the best. Prine was later to cite Bill Monroe’s comment on it – that he thought that was a song that he had ‘overlooked from the twenties’ – as one of the best compliments that he had received in his career as a songwriter.

Diamonds In The Rough, the album which Prine released after his brilliant first album, was not, perhaps, quite as good as its predecessor, but it was still a very fine album in its own right. From it, I have included the excellent The Great Compromise, which deals, in an oblique way, with Prine’s growing frustration with the direction in which American domestic and foreign policy was going. Although Souvenirs also first appeared on Diamonds the version I have selected here is the one on the excellent Great Days anthology and which features Prine’s close friend, the songwriter, Steve Goodman. There is a wonderful interplay and musical understanding between the two men here and the duet serves a fitting tribute to the friendship and occasional musical partnership (Goodman also produced Prine’s excellent Bruised Orange album in 1978) that the two men shared before Goodman’s untimely death in 1984.

Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone from Bruised Orange is one of my favourite Prine songs. It is both extremely witty and, at the same time, has a melancholy undercurrent. It also features one of the worst puns this side of Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft. The song also manages to deal with some of the downsides of life on ‘the road’ without veering into the ‘self-pitying rock star’ territory. Since Bruised Orange, Prine has made a series of remarkably consistent albums and I have included two of the best acerbically bitter-sweet love songs (Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness and All The Best) from them here

My other two selections (Lake Marie and My Darlin’ Hometown) are, in my opinion, worthy of a place among his very best songs. Lake Marie is a beautifully constructed study of the effects which memory/past history can have on the present and on the way in which, by contrast, events in the present can dramatically alter our view of the past. Besides this, it also includes a short lesson in American history, a fishing expedition and a double murder – what more could one ask? In an ironic twist, My Darlin’ Hometown is a song about homesickness written by an American who lives for at least part of the year in the West of Ireland. This must be a first (usually, of course, it is the other way around) and when it is allied with a fine melody and with one of his best lyrics in years, it makes for yet another great song by a supreme artist, who is one of the great American songwriters of recent times.

 

John Prine official website

John Prine official fan site

John Prine biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

As a postscript, Andrew flagged up this charming, witty clip of John Prine performing That’s The Way That The World Goes Round in Green’s pub in Kinvara, County Galway not far from where Andrew grew up – John, who has a house nearby (see above) is suffering from operable lung cancer but still manages to put on a great informal treat for the locals.

TopperPost #201

7 Comments

  1. Kasper Nijsen
    Feb 18, 2014

    Great list! It’s inspired me to dig up my old record of his first album again. For me though, I can’t make it without Sam Stone and that disturbing rhyme in its chorus: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose”.

  2. Peter Viney
    Feb 18, 2014

    An article that made me want to hear more. I guess like most people, Sam Stone is the automatic collocation with John Prine, and I’d have to have it too, in spite of knowing so little else. Lake Marie on the video above is chilling … both the way the lyric shifts surprisingly and the way he plays acoustic rhythm guitar with such authority reminded me of Simone Felice.Will investigate more.

  3. Ian Ashleigh
    Feb 18, 2014

    Andrew, many thanks for reminding me of great work produced by John Prine. He was someone my brother listed to back in the days of late night John Peel and Bob Harris etc but it’s a good few years since I’ve heard him, and the video from the pub is just magical.

  4. Ilkka Jauramo
    Feb 18, 2014

    A Scandinavian reporter interviewed John Prine in early 80s in the US. John Prine was known for serious songs with social commentary so this reporter asked a serious question and waited certainly for even more serious answer: “John, what do you think about the present US government?” “I … ehhh … I … (and then laughing) I don’t think a whole lot of it!” A great guy with humour and distance.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Feb 18, 2014

    Thanks for the comments.

    Could have included almost all of the songs from Prine’s debut album (which remains one of my favourites ever) here…

  6. David Lewis
    Feb 19, 2014

    that video is just gold. Great article as well.

  7. Andrew Shields
    Sep 21, 2014

    A small tribute to Steve Goodman, who died 30 years ago – on September 20 1984. This is his & John Prine’s lovely version of the latter’s song ‘Souvenirs” (one of my choices above).

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