Friday, November 13, 2009


"Sam Stone"

John Prine is a hell of a songwriter. He can write a simple country folk song that will knock you out. Prine is a poet, really, and a short story writer, and a singer all rolled up in one. Listen to the words, and unless you're a hopelessly hard-hearted bastard you'll feel something. That's truth.

John Prine wasn't an overnight success. He joined the army, and then worked as a postman. He wrote songs at night, and he played them on open mikes in clubs. That's when he caught the attention of Kris Kristofferson, who was completely blown away. He quipped that Prine was so good "we'll have to break his thumbs."

Kris helped him get a recording contract, and the eponymous 1971 album that followed was a huge hit. The cover showed him sitting on a couple bales of hay like some farmboy. This was 1971, mind you, and way out of step with the fashion of the day, but the hippest songwriters payed close attention. Like any great new songwriter, he was called "the next Bob Dylan," but the old, original Dylan himself was a big fan, and even showed up to a gig to play harmonica with John.


Here's a younger John Prine slinking around in his old hometown of Maywood, Illinois. He sings "Paradise," a song about returning to his old Kentucky home to find it stripped away by Peabody Coal Company.

In 2009, Bob Dylan told the Huffington Post that Prine was one of his favorite writers, stating "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about "Sam Stone," the soldier junkie daddy, and "Donald and Lydia," where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that."

Prine is still making music, but maybe he doesn't quite fit into the standard radio format--he's not really country, not really folk--you rarely hear him in the box. I guess he sounds pretty laid back to contemporary listeners, so maybe they think he's old fashioned, but they're missing some radical songwriting. His songs have a gentle power, and he doesn't shout and scream to get your attention, and he doesn't use drum machines and synthesisers and Auto-Tune, and he doesn't try to anticipate the Next Big Thing. He just writes songs, pure and simple.

In 2005, John Prine received the Artist of the Year award at the Americana Music Awards. In 2006, he won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. That was Fair and Square, an album that gave us "Safety Joe," about a man who never took any risks in his life, and "Some Humans Ain't Human," a song that laments the sorry state of humanity and even takes a potshot at President George W. Bush. I'll say it again, Listen to the words.

"Hello in There."

John's older now--who isn't? He's had his ups and downs. It's fitting to end with his song about old age, a sweet heartrending favorite off his first album so many years ago.

post inspired by Bill Craig Jones, who posted some Prine clips on Facebook. Bill is a bay area musician and old friend who used to jam with us up on Cooper Mountain
back in the day.


Bill Craig Jones said...

Great job on that article Bob.

A note from Pattra said...

Hi Bob, Bill sent me your blog address... I had sent him a little John Prine story about when I met John in Seattle. I believe Seattle sits in a great vortex of some kind because the phenomena you mentioned in another one of your posts describes a reoccurring thing... can't think of a noun... sorry, I'm very, very tired, but I am writing because I wanted to share a great book with you. I'm in chapter 13... not by name, but I was there... actually, I was there the whole time as I was born in Seattle in 1949 which made me 18 in 1967... We were called "fringies" by the press and establishment when I was growing up there in Seattle. Fringies was an acronym or shorter way of saying "the fringe element of the university district" as we were the kids that hung out at the coffeehouses and U of W campus in the sixties... too young and west coast to be beatniks and the word "hippie" hadn't been invented yet.
So the story of some of those days has been captured very accurately by my friend, Walter Crowley. He has since pass away, but the book lives on. It's called: Rites of Passage, A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle by Walt Crowley ...Enjoy! A friend of more than one Bill. Pattra

Bob Rini said...

Glad you liked it. The clips you posted on FB triggered my memory of all the great John Prine songs.

Bob Rini said...

Thanks for the book suggestion, Pattra. You'll be happy to kn ow that "fringies" are still hanging out on the Ave in the U District.