I've had the liner notes for Great Days, The John Prine Anthology, in my briefcase for a while, thinking that when I had the opportunity, I'd read them. I mean, I'm only 20 years late in doing so. The record came out in 1993, and I've had it most of that time. So this week I finally got around to it.
Like the newspaper he talks about in the spoken introduction to Dear Abby, every time you turn the page in this wonderfully written booklet something jumps right out at you. There's the story of Paradise. After he recorded it, Prine brought the song home for his dad to hear on a reel-to-reel. His dad listened in the dark. "'I asked him why, and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox.'"
Paradise is a real place, Prine's ancestral home, and it was in fact wiped off the map by the coal company. As most of us know, the song feels much older than it is. When Prine was introduced to Bill Monroe, someone said he was the guy who wrote that song about Muhlenberg County. "Bill said, 'Oh, yeah, I thought was a song I overlooked from the '20's.'"
Please Don't Bury Me started out as a song about a guy named Tom Brewster. Brewster dies too soon and must be sent back but the angels don't have enough to work with so he has to go back as a rooster. Brewster the rooster. But "I ended up trashing that whole part and came up with this idea of the guy just giving all of his organs away, and I made a whole song out of that. It's the best organ donor campfire song I know of."
Prine's approach to writing Please Don't Bury Me reminds me of his quote at the beginning of the Great Days booklet: "'Writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what's not supposed to be there.'" Amen. And amen again.
Prine found his first shot at success thanks to Steve Goodman playing one of Prine's songs when he opened for Kris Kristofferson. Goodman ends up taking Kristofferson to a Prine gig late that night, then the next thing you know, they're cutting demos in New York. While there, Kristofferson asks Prine to play three songs in one of his shows. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records is there. And the rest is, as they say, history.
The liner notes are written by David Fricke, and they resonate with the long-time Prine fan and the newbie. Fricke has a real appreciation for his subject and tells the story straight as he weaves in references to the people who helped Prine along the way. Steve Goodman and Kristofferson, of course. Bob Dylan. Arif Mardin. (Mardin, by the way, had the good sense to use a live version of Dear Abby on Sweet Revenge when the studio versions didn't seem to work.) Cowboy Jack Clement. Knox Phillips, Jerry Phillips, and Sam Phillips. Al Bunetta and Dan Einstein. And Steve Goodman. When Goodman finally succumbed to leukemia in 1984 after battling it for 16 years, Prine was devastated. "'You'd think you'd be halfway prepared for it when it came. But he might as well have gotten hit by a train."
Prine's explanations of the songs included in the collection are so entertaining I found myself going back through them a second time. Who knew that Illegal Smile wasn't originally about getting high? Or that the "blow up your TV" line in Spanish Pipedream was originally a line about a woman forgetting to take the "pill"? Or that Donald and Lydia came from a book of names for babies? Or that the part in Sweet Revenge about the milkman leaving a note to get out of town by noon was a reaction to the critics panning his second record (and that Hunter S. Thompson quotes that part of the song in Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail)? Or that someone wrote a real letter to Dear Abby based on the guy whose stomach makes noises and she was taken in by it? Oh, I could go on and on, but I'll stop and save you a few gems to discover on your own.
John Prine is a national treasure. This is something I've re-learned every time I've seen him live, and it comes through again and again, listening to the 41 songs in this anthology. Unlike so many others, Prine never seems to take himself too seriously. From the liner notes: "'The funny thing is, I consider myself to be one of the most undisciplined people in the world, let alone a songwriter. Totally irresponsible. I'd leave a song in a hot second for a hot dog or anything."
Apparently, Great Days is out of print now - it can be bought used for about $25 on Amazon. New copies range from about $150 to over $2000. I'd go with the used, if it were me. But make sure it includes the liner notes. You gotta have those.