Friday, November 13, 2009
THE GREAT JOHN PRINE
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.