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John Prine

Along with his good ol’ buddies TOWNES VAN ZANDT and GUY CLARK, country-folk singer-songwriter JOHN PRINE has paved the way for a host of followers, including STEVE EARLE, LYLE LOVETT and NANCI GRIFFITH.
Born October 10, 1946, Maywood, Illinois, the young JP learned guitar from his elder brother and started to both write and play music in his early teens. Graduating from high school in 1964, he spent two years working as a postman before being drafted into the army. Although the Vietnam war was beginning to take its toll on America’s young men, PRINE was lucky enough to be posted to Germany, where he whiled away his time in the motor pool and entertained his barrack-room buddies with his strikingly original and obliquely observed compositions. After his discharge from the army, he returned to work for the US Mail and continued his songwriting, although still on an amateur basis.
John made his professional debut in Chicago folk club “the 5th Peg” in 1970 and was persuaded by the club’s owner that his talents lay in the direction of music rather than mail delivery. Soon afterwards, PRINE was introduced to KRIS KRISTOFFERSON and 50s crooner Paul Anka, to whom he played a few of his (now classic) compositions. Both were astounded by his mature writing style and the diverse range of emotions running through his subject matter – let’s face it, songs on masturbation, such as `Donald And Lydia’, were not exactly thick on the ground in early 70s America. The pair arranged for him to make some demos, and thereafter KRISTOFFERSON invited him to play a few songs on his show. In the audience that particular night was Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who was bowled over and immediately offered him a recording deal.
The singer’s eponymous JOHN PRINE (1971) {*9} debut album was immediately hailed as a ground-breaking record and met with great critical and grass-roots popular success, although it performed poorly by way of sales. Backed by DYLAN-esque session organ, honky-tonk piano and a C&W beat, PRINE’s meaningfully plaintive but witty lyrics (on now standards like `Angel From Montgomery’, `Hello In There’, `Illegal Smile’, `Sam Stone’ and the aforementioned `Donald And Lydia’) were earnest and folk-orientated.
The set was quickly followed by DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH (1972) {*8}, which again showcased his wry observations of life’s trials and tribulations; further gems included here were `Souvenirs’, `Sour Grapes’, `Late John Garfield Blues’, `Yes I Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You’ and the cover of The CARTER FAMILY title track. Once again, critical plaudits were huge, while commercial success was moderate. At the time, PRINE was being promoted – complete with denim jacket – as the “new Dylan”, a term he felt less than happy about. However, he was beginning to acquire a solid ground-base of loyal fans. More importantly, leading artists were beginning to listen to and include his songs on their albums; everybody who was anybody in the US folk/country world wanted to cover a PRINE composition.
His third Top 200 album (and his highest so far at No.135), SWEET REVENGE (1973) {*7}, disappointed a few critics but not his fanbase, and was a somewhat irreverent and searching attempt at exploring new horizons. However, this session did produce a handful of JP staples, `Dear Abbie’, `Please Don’t Bury Me’, `Christmas In Prison’, `Blue Umbrella’ and `Often Is A Word I Seldom Use’, demonstrating that his muse hadn’t completely deserted him.
Cracking the Top 100 at No.66, COMMON SENSE (1975) {*4}, produced by Steve Cropper (ex-BOOKER T & THE MGs), was generally agreed to be a “bummer”, although on reflection tracks like `Come Back To Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard’ and `He Was In Heaven Before He Died’ certainly had the edge over his reading of CHUCK BERRY’s `You Never Can Tell’. Atlantic Records had by now decided that he was definitely not the “new Dylan” and almost immediately ended their 5-year association by mutual agreement.
Three years passed while John took stock, subsequently composing and polishing enough material to impress David Geffen’s Asylum label. The fruits of his labour finally emerged in the shape of the STEVE GOODMAN-produced BRUISED ORANGE (1978) {*8}, another PRINE classic regarded by many as a return to the promise he showed earlier in the decade. With his friend SG on board, the amiable/good-natured JP was back on form for the likes of `Fish And Whistle’, `If You Don’t Want My Love’, `That’s The Way That The World Goes ‘Round’ and `Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone’.
JP took an even more light-hearted approach to his sixth album, PINK CADILLAC (1979) {*6}, an uncharacteristically electrified, R’n’R set (recorded in Memphis with ELVIS man Sam Phillips) which lacked the spark of its acoustic predecessor. With only five PRINE originals on board, and none of them particularly endowed with greatness, the set was cover-crazy courtesy of Arthur Gunter’s `Let’s Play House’, Roly Salley’s `Killing The Blues’, Floyd Tillman’s `This Cold War With You’, Billy Lee Riley’s `No Name Girl’ and Charles Underwood’s `Ubangi Stomp’.
Disillusioned, transitional and more sedate, STORM WINDOWS (1980) {*5} was PRINE’s last attempt at major-label success, tracks getting the balance reasonably right were `Sleepy Eyed Boy’, `Shop Talk’, `Living In The Future’ and the title track. This was to be John’s last effort for four years, although he continued to work on material and collaborations with other writers and artists.
It was around this time the man took the decision to start his own label, Oh Boy, an exercise that dug deep into his finances and time, resulting in his temporary although somewhat lengthy absence from the spotlight. Fans were thrown a crumb of comfort in 1981 with the release of that rare PRINE curiosity, a Christmas single, `I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus’ – backed unceremoniously by `Silver Bells’ (yuk!).
The aptly-titled AIMLESS LOVE (1984) {*5} album was another lacklustre effort, yet despite ignoring recording and concert work, PRINE’s standing among his peers had never been higher, and he continued to write, play and guest on various projects while still trying to kick-start his label. Of the album itself, there were songwriter collaborations aplenty via `Be My Friend Tonight’ (with Roger Cook & SHEL SILVERSTEIN), `Only Love’ (with Cook & Sandy Mason), `Slow Boat To China’ (with Bobby & Linda Whitlock), and two alongside Donnie Fritts, `The Oldest Baby In The World’ and `Somewhere Someone’s Falling In Love’.
Pure country and backed by the New Grass Revival, his ninth album, GERMAN AFTERNOONS (1986) {*5}, received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album; this was probably due to the NANCI GRIFFITH cover of one of its better tracks, `Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness’, while others that stood out were The CARTER FAMILY’s `Lulu Walls’ and Leon Payne’s `They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me’.
PRINE was back to something approaching his old style, although all was not going well in his personal life; a second marriage had failed (check the lyrics of the aforementioned `Speed… Loneliness’) and the recent death from cancer of his close friend, singer-songwriter and erstwhile collaborator, STEVE GOODMAN, had left its mark. Once more, he disappeared into the shadows of depression, with the only output being a retrospective double-live album of old favourites, JOHN PRINE LIVE (1988) {*7}. It was rumoured in some camps that, following the death of his close friend that PRINE had given up the business completely, and it was to take three years coaxing and cajoling from his long-time musical buddies (including BONNIE RAITT, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, TOM PETTY, JOHN MELLENCAMP and DAVID LINDLEY) before he resurfaced with the well-received THE MISSING YEARS (1991) {*8}. Rootsy rather than folk, from a purist perspective, the Howie Epstein-produced set comprised thirteen originals (including w/ MELLENCAMP: `Take A Look At My Heart’) and a Lefty Frizzell cut, `I Want To Be With You Always’. Agents were once more beating a path to his door and his back catalogue was being rediscovered by a new legion of fans. A resulting Grammy award finally gave PRINE the recognition he undeniably deserved and vindicated both his fans and co-artists’ loyalty over those “missing years”. More importantly, that elusive element, commercial success, had finally come within John’s grasp; he found himself very much in demand again for concerts, tours and other ventures. His soundtrack contribution to the movie `Falling from Grace’ further enhanced his reputation; he even hosted a TV series, Town And Country, for British Channel 4 in ‘92, while a stop-gap holiday mini-album, A JOHN PRINE CHRISTMAS (1993) {*4} was released.
LOST DOGS AND MIXED BLESSINGS (1995) {*6} – also Epstein-produced – took off in yet another off-centre direction, many of the songs scribed with Gary Nicholson, while the closing number was a cover of Floyd Tillman’s `I Love You So Much It Hurts’; PRINE had also remarried and relocated to the Irish Republic.
LIVE ON TOUR (1997) {*6} retraced and re-emphasized his worth on stage, plus there was room for a few forgotten oddities and out-takes including the unrecorded `Space Monkey’ (penned with PETER CASE), an 8-minute version of `Lake Marie’ (a song from his last set) and Tim Carroll’s `If I Could’, but none of his better-known gems.
After surviving a throat cancer operation, JP returned to the studio in 1999 with IN SPITE OF OURSELVES {*7}, a country-covers album of duets with everyone from IRIS DeMENT, DOLORES KEANE, Melba Montgomery and EMMYLOU HARRIS to Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless and LUCINDA WILLIAMS; pick of the renditions were DON EVERLY’s `So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)’, Freddie Hart’s `Loose Talk’, Bobby Braddock’s `(We’re Not) The Jet Set’ and Onie Wheeler’s `Let’s Invite Them Over’.
SOUVENIRS (2000) {*5}, meanwhile, was a collection of PRINE’s most treasured compositions, initially re-recorded for the German market but subsequently given a full release, among them the still wonderful `Angel From Montgomery’, `Grandpa Was A Carpenter’ and `People Puttin’ People Down’.
Only his third in a decade, but his first album ever to enter the Top 60, FAIR & SQUARE (2005) {*6} was augmented by ALISON KRAUSS and Jerry Douglas, while highlights this time came from `Some Humans Ain’t Human’ (a slight on the war in Iraq), `Crazy As A Loon’, `My Darlin’ Hometown’, and a couple of covers by way of Blaze Foley’s `Clay Pigeons’ and the CARTER FAMILY’s `Bear Creek Blues’. Together with bluegrass balladeer, Mac Wiseman, and leaning heavily on the Nashville/Grand Opry side, covers set STANDARD SONGS FOR AVERAGE PEOPLE (2007) {*6} took PRINE a step back or two, at least commercially. Songs like KRISTOFFERSON’s `Just The Other Side Of Nowhere’, TOM T. HALL’s `Old Dogs, Children And Watermelon Wine’ and Ernest Tubb’s `Blue Eyed Elaine’ had PRINE in full-circle mode, taking us all back to an age when country was king. 2010’s IN PERSON & ON STAGE {*6} and the 1970-recorded THE SINGING MAILMAN DELIVERS (2011) {*8} would get PRINE back on the folk-rock track, and into the Top 100.
About to turn 70 and concerned he might never get another chance to follow-up his classic country duets album from 1999, invitations were sent to his favourite and affordable female stars for 2016’s FOR BETTER, OR WORSE {*7}. A musical multi-marriage of sorts, his C&W cohorts were the real stars, and that included his steely backing band. Among the 15 tracks (all but one a duet), one couldn’t help thinking of combinations like WAGONER and PARTON or JONES and WYNETTE for the IRIS DeMENT pairing `Who’s Gonna Take The Garbage Out’ and `Mr. & Mrs. Used To Be’. That aside, there were some other greats on board: ALISON KRAUSS (on a cool rendition of `Falling In Love Again’), plus songs featuring KATHY MATEA, SUSAN TEDESCHI, KACEY MUSGRAVES, LEE ANN WOMACK, MIRANDA LAMBERT, AMANDA SHIRES, Holly Williams, Morgane Stapleton and Fiona Prine.
© MC Strong 2000-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Mar2015

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