John Prine was never destined to be another Elvis Presley. For one thing, Prine has a face that wouldn't win any beauty contests. For another thing, Prine’s voice sounds a bit like Froggy from the Our Gang comedies. Not exactly the "right stuff" for rock and roll royalty. And, yet, Prine has been releasing quality albums for 26 years now--something Elvis stopped doing in about 1958.
Prine is an oddity, no matter how you look at it. For instance, he’s from Chicago and yet he sings with a dirt-road, Southern accent: "Hello in tharrrr, hello." He’s not another Dylan trying to sound like Woody Guthrie, or another Ramblin’ Jack Elliott trying to sound like he’s from Oklahoma rather than Brooklyn. He sounds like no one other than John Prine. Another extreme oddity is that he was first "discovered" by Kris Kristofferson after a heads-up from (are you ready for this?) Paul Anka.
Prine’s songs aren’t folk; they aren’t blues. There are country elements, but nothing Nashville would come close to claiming. There are rock elements, but nothing to appease your average air guitarist. It sure as hell isn’t "world music" or "new age" or any of that happy PC hoowah. If I had to categorize his songs, I’d opt for "country-folk roll filtered through electro-acoustic rock." Or not. And, the lyrics--funny, sad, over-the-top, yet ever on target.
Prine’s "career in music" began with his self-titled debut album in 1971. It was one of those debut albums that jump out at you with impossibly good songs that leave you saying "Damn, where’d he come from?" "Twenty-four years old and he writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty," Kristofferson wrote in the liner notes. How does a 24-year-old kid come up with lyrics like: "Ya know, that old trees just grow stronger/And old rivers grow wilder every day/Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say/Hello in there/Hello." With instant-classics like "Donald and Lydia," "Hello In There," "Sam Stone," "Angel From Montgomery," and the oft-covered "Paradise," Prine leapt to the forefront, jumped to the head of the class, took a ride on the Reading, passed Go, and collected two-hundred dollars. And, sure enough, there at the bottom of the liner notes: "Special thanks to Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka." (Which is as odd a pairing as, say, Kinky Friedman and Teresa Brewer.)
Prine’s follow-up album, Diamonds in the Rough, isn’t quite the first-cut-to-last success that his debut album was, but it did add such songs to the Prine "Hall of Classics" as "Yes I Guess They Ought to Name a Drink After You," "The Great Compromise," "The Late John Garfield Blues," and, my favorite, "Souvenirs": "Memories, they can’t be boughten/They can’t be won at carnivals for free/It took me years to get those souvenirs/And I don’t know how they slipped away from me." As usual, Prine is aided and abetted by his close friend and peer, Steve Goodman, with him he shared a quirky, demented, and hilarious sense of humor. The sound, as on the debut album, is largely acoustic, with occasional electric guitar stabs from the likes of David Bromberg and Buddy Emmons.
By the third album, Sweet Revenge, Prine had found a consistent blend of electric and acoustic backing that suited his songs. The album is a no-let-up good stuff. "Sweet Revenge," "Please Don’t Bury Me," "Christmas in Prison," "Dear Abby," "Blue Umbrella," "Often Is a Word I Seldom Use"--and that’s just the first side. The second side contains no less than the dead-on funny "The Accident (Things Could Be Worse)" and the timeless "Grandpa Was a Carpenter": "Grandpa was a carpenter/He built houses, stores and banks/Chain smoked Camel cigarettes/And hammered nails in planks." It is appropriate that John Prine is pictured in a car on the cover because, on this album, Prine found the musical vehicle for his efforts that he uses even today.
1975’s Common Sense is a bit of a come down. It was recorded in Memphis, Tennessee and Los Angeles, California. It is a little too much Los Angeles and not near enough Memphis. Produced by the MG’s Steve Cropper and employing such LA "lights" as J.D. Souther, Glenn Frey, and Jackson Browne, the album has too much studio and not enough Prine. There are horns, strings, congas, and even an appearance by the then-obscure Bonnie Raitt. Strangely enough, many critics list this as one of their favorite Prine albums. I sometimes think they just like to confound.
After this album, Prine took a bit of a sabbatical. 1976 saw the release of the largely unnecessary Prime Prine - The Best of John Prine. It is a definite holding action. Many of Prine’s best songs are there but, for some reason, the album doesn’t hang together. Perhaps it’s because it is poorly mixed and sequenced. (Atlantic Records was notorious for releasing best-ofs with a terribly muted sound quality.) Maybe it’s just that Prine’s music is such a delicate balance that it can’t be taken out of context.
1977 came and went with the release of no John Prine product. Prine was pondering his next direction. He and Atlantic Records had parted ways and he was shopping labels. Prine finally signed with the then-fledgling Asylum label and set to work writing songs for his next album, Bruised Orange.
Produced by his buddy, Steve Goodman, 1978’s Bruised Orange may well be Prine’s signature album. Prine’s heretofore somewhat muddy mix is replaced by an enticingly crisp, clean production. The vocals are very much up close and personal. The songwriting is nearly flawless. Not only is there not a weak cut on the album, there isn’t a less than great song on the album. "Fish and Whistle," an impossibly infectious tune, kicks off the album in fine shape and contains Prine’s best take on religion: "Father forgive us for what we must do/You forgive us/We’ll forgive You/We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue/Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven." Bruised Orange is essential.
Prine didn’t exactly come roaring back with 1979’s Pink Cadillac or 1980’s Storm Windows. In fact, he near completely lost sight of what he was trying to do. Pink Cadillac, though nicely raucous at times, attempts to push Prine too much in a rock direction. The heavy beat posturing is there, but the songwriting suffers. And putting Prine in Sun Studios made no sense whatsoever. Like I said, Prine could never have been Elvis Presley.
Storm Windows, produced by Muscle Shoals’ Barry Beckett, tries to make Prine a honky-tonker. The main fault of the production is that Prine’s voice, though amplified, is about midways back in the mix. In fact, the vocals sound as if they are in the back room, with the microphone being in the front room. Prine’s songwriting remains in a funk. The one song on either album worthy of Bruised Orange is "Sleepy Eyed Boy": "Where are the boot straps/To lift myself up/Where is the well/Where I once filled my cup/Where does this sorrow/All turn into joy/And where oh where is the sleepy eyed boy." The subject matter of the lyrics, however, shows that Prine knew he wasn’t at the top of his game.
Part of Prine’s problem on Asylum after Bruised Orange is a problem many artists experienced on the label. Whether recorded in New Orleans, New York, Memphis, or Muscle Shoals, Asylum was strictly an "El Lay (LA) studio" sound--laid back, professional, tasteful, but seldom exciting. It’s a sound that got massive radio play for such artists as Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and the Eagles, but, for an individualist like Prine, it was near death.
This time, Prine had some serious soul searching to do and it would take a while.
Prine made a bold decision. He decided, probably against all advice, to start his own record company. The logic was solid: let Prine be Prine. So what if he never became Elvis Presley? His fan base was solid. To paraphrase FIELD OF DREAMS, if he recorded it, they would come. And, who knew, maybe he’d even pick up a few thousand or so pair of new ears along the way. If he failed, at least it would be on his own terms.
Prine’s first release, in 1982, on his own Oh-Boy Records , was a quirky babystep--a 45 of "I Was Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." "Quirky," to be sure, but it made a statement: "I’m going to release what I damn well please." The green picture sleeve with the government-gameland orange record label made for an interesting little package. And, as "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clauses" go, it is right fine. One merely hoped he stopped there, before releasing, say, a version of "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." (Though, he did release a Christmas EP in 1983.)
From 1981 to 1984, Prine was writing songs, recording when he felt like it, and, generally, getting himself ready for the next stage of his career. One major distraction was the fact that best friend Steve Goodman’s leukemia was active again and looked to be irreversible. In August of 1984, Goodman had a bone marrow transplant. In September of 1984, Goodman died. Not long after, Prine released his first major release for his new record label, Aimless Love.
Aimless Love, dedicated to Goodman’s family and to "all the great times Steve, Al (Prine’s manager) and me ever had", brings Prine all the way back. It’s that good. Co-produced with erstwhile folkie Jim Rooney, Aimless Love reveals a more mature, somewhat more serious John Prine. However, his humorous side is still evident in "The Bottomless Lake," a long-time stage favorite finally committed to vinyl: "They rented a car at the Erie Canal/But the car didn’t have no brake/Said ma to pa my God this car/Is gonna fall into the bottomless lake." Prine’s poignant side comes out on such beautiful slow songs as "Only Love" and "Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love." Aimless Love also contains the oft-covered "Unwed Fathers" with its famous chorus: "From a teenage lover/To an unwed mother/Kept undercover/Like some bad dream/But unwed fathers/They can’t be bothered/They run like water/Through a mountain stream." The sound is mostly acoustic, quiet, and, at times, mildly electric. It works. John Prine was back--and on his own record label.
Prine’s next album, 1986’s German Afternoons, again produced by Jim Rooney, continued the acousto-folkie sound with less-than-classic results. Prine’s songwriting is strong; it’s the overly laid-back backing that can’t make up it’s mind whether to be folk or country that undercuts the songs. Either honky-tonk it or bluegrass it, but don’t keep switching back and forth. At times, as on "I Just Want to Dance With You," the ambiance takes a sidestreet and veers dangerously close to Jimmy Buffett-ville. With all its faults, German Afternoons is a quietly elegant, entertaining affair. It’s just that, considering the strength of the songwriting, it could have been so much more. It was clear that Prine and Rooney had reached the end of their association.
Concurrent with Prine starting his own record label, he had become a much in-demand performer on "the baby boomer circuit"--medium-sized clubs, civic auditoriums, converted movie theatres and the like. These are one-thousand to five-thousand seaters, with good acoustics and good vibes. And, more importantly, they contain much-appreciative audiences. For a fledgling record label, such appearances, (with on-site record sales), are essential. In 1988, Prine collected two-albums-worth of highlights from these performances and released it as Prine Live.
Prine Live doesn’t blaze any new paths. It’s intent, besides buying time until the next studio release, was to give Prine’s loyal fans and concert-goers a soundtrack of the live Prine experience. This could have been done on a single LP, but Prine is a generous fellow. The backing band is tight and loose in the right places. Prine’s between-song patter is, as ever, hilarious. Prine Live isn’t essential, but it is fun.
Once again, Prine was needing to reinvent himself. If not reinvent, then, at least to up the ante a few chips. A new sound was needed. Something noisier, bigger. Something digital-friendly. By chance, someone told Prine that members of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers were big Prine fans and frequented his shows. Introductions occurred and, before you could say "live like a refugee," Prine and Heartbreaker bassist Howie Epstein were conspiring on Prine’s next studio release.
Howie Epstein proved to be the perfect vehicle to bring Prine into the CD age. 1991’s The Missing Years may not have reinvented the Prine wheel, but it sure put a shine on it. The sound is full, with Epstein’s electric bass up front and Prine’s vocals recorded clear and resonant; deep even. (Considering Prine’s vocal tendency is to flatten out at a high, hoarse level, this is no small feat.) Heartbreaker Benmont Tench adds many nice touches with his Highway 61-ish, Al Kooper-like organ accompaniment. Phil Parlapiano’s accordion and stringmeister David Lindley’s bouzouki and harplex also contribute to the sheer uniqueness of this outing. Epstein seems to have an innate knowledge that the odd instrument or the odd instrument styling is embraced by digital sound. (Check out the spacey, toy-piano vibe on "It’s a Big Old Goofy World".)
The Missing Years adds several songs to the Prine list of requestables. The aforementioned "It’s a Big Old Goofy World" is Prine at his wise/loopy best: "There’s a big old goofy man/Dancing with a big old goofy girl/Ooh baby/It’s a big old goofy world." (Pretty much says it all when you think about it.) "Everything Is Cool", a ballad of love lost and peace of mind refound, sums up the whole noisy, complex experience with simple, understated ease: "Everything is cool/Everything’s OK/Why just before last Christmas/My baby went away." "Picture Show," "All the Best," "The Sins of Memphisto," and "Daddy’s Little Pumpkin" have all become stage favorites.
Digital radio liked the new Prine sound and The Missing Years received considerable airplay. Sales weren’t platinum, but they were healthy. Prine was back. Prine was current. And, Prine was still Prine.
After The Missing Years, Prine toured heavily, sometimes as a solo, sometimes with a band, sometimes as an opening act for then-hot artists such as Mary Chapin-Carpenter. Meanwhile, a new radio format, Americana, was emerging, and Prine became a staple on these stations.
In 1993, in association with Rhino records, Great Days: The John Prine Anthology was released. The "great" anthology is two CDs with 41 songs, a 52-page booklet, rare photos, and song annotations by Prine himself. As CD anthologies go, it is a good one. Whether or not one wants to plop down 25 bucks for it depends on how one feels about such extravaganzas. For Prine fans, it’s worth owning for Prine’s wacked out song explanations alone. Several of the cuts are live, with a studio curio or three thrown in. Again, not essential, but nice to have so much encased in one plastic container.
By 1994, Prine and Epstein were back in the studio, expanding on the magic they had discovered with The Missing Years. The result, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, may even surpass Bruised Orange as Prine’s signature statement. It’s an all killer, no filler house of fun. The groove Prine and Epstein found on The Missing Years is revisited and expanded to include not only a fuller sound, but a big, fat, rocking sound.
Perhaps the key to the success of Prine as a rocker is the fact that Epstein settles on a set unit of solid rock musicians. There is Epstein on bass, Benmont Tench and Phil Parlapiano on various keyboards, Joe Romersa on drums, and, trading licks on guitars, John Jorgenson, Gary Nicholson, and the venerable Waddy Wachtel. And, if a song needs backup vocals to put it over the top, backup vocals are used. If a song needs a battery of wailing guitars to bring it home, a battery of wailing guitars is used. If it needs organ or accordion, there’s organ or accordion. Whatever it takes to flesh out and enhance Prine’s great compositions, Epstein does. It’s frequently a wall of sound and it works wonderfully.
Like Bruised Orange, there isn’t a bad cut on Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. The CD opens with (I think) Prine’s take on the afterlife in "New Train": "No melted ice cube in a paper cup/Hell you’ll be so happy you’ll be all shook up/The friends that greet you will be simple and plain/When you step down from that new train." The next cut, "Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody," was released as a video and received medium-to-heavy rotation on TNN. It’s a cool groove of a song with Epstein’s walking bass and Benmont Tench’s cheesy organ fills providing the hip backdrop. The opening lines are classic Prine: "I’m walkin’ down the street/Like Lucky LaRue/Got my hand in my pocket/I’m thinkin’ ‘bout you/I ain’t hurtin’ nobody/I ain’t hurtin’ no one."
The "fat, rocking" sound I mentioned earlier is exemplified by "We Are the Lonely," with Epstein’s heavy bass and Gary Nicholson’s nasty, fuzztone guitar. The lunatic mock personals at the end of the song are hilarious: "SWF with a PhD/Seeks TLC at the A&P." "Straight but curious 33/Seeks survivor of Wounded Knee." "Toothy gal with breasts so large/Takes Visa Amex Master Charge." "Ugly man treats girls like dirt/Wants buttons sewn upon his shirt."
Not to mention every cut on Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, I must pause to single out the sprawling, mostly-narrative "Lake Marie." It’s a circuitous tale of the smaller of two lakes and involves, I think, love and murder. It is very reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s "Brownsville Girl," with it’s spoken, relaxed verses and sing-a-long choruses. Whatever it is, it succeeds, as does every minute of Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings.
At this writing, we are waiting on the next Prine studio effort. As usual, a holding action CD has been put out- John Prine Live on Tour. Released this summer, the album features Prine’s new, rocking incarnation. It may even have a few cuts that will please your average air guitarist. God only knows if Prine will continue in this vein the next time he crosses a studio threshold.
John Prine, twenty five years in, is in control. His audience is solid and expanding, if not by leaps and bounds, then by steps and hops. He has successfully translated his sound into the latest technology. His songwriting has hit a new stride. He has his own record label. Prine is sitting pretty. After a good quarter-century of amazing work, he's certainly had it coming.