John Prine – a new appreciation
‘In person and On Stage – John Prine
‘Broken hearts and Dirty Windows: the songs of John Prine’ – various artists
Reviews by Doug Heselgrave
John Prine’s songs have insinuated themselves so deeply in our collective memories over the last forty years that it’s become easy to take them and the man who wrote them for granted. It’s difficult to remember a time when Sam Stone, John Garfield, Donald and Lydia, and a revolving cast of characters who have graduated from hula hoops to therapy groups weren’t part of popular music’s cosmology. Over the years, Prine’s songs have become more than they were intended to be, and now seem more like they were penned on papyrus reed by some scratchy old Methuselah than by a still sprightly sixty four year old singer who – in his inimitable relaxed fashion – continues to travel the world and share his music with all who care to listen.
In some ways, John Prine’s continued appeal is difficult to account for, and he’s certainly endured some fairly cynical criticism from hard hearted journalists over the years. Prine’s voice is as patched and scratchy as an old bicycle tire, and he’s never been a virtuoso guitar player as the generations of campfire crooners who can barely string three chords together and continue to sing his songs attest. Perhaps, rather than being a detriment, the secret to his success lies somewhere in his humble and rather unremarkable presentation of his creations. Prine isn’t writing for scholars and kings, and his songs don’t exist on a rarified plane. Prine’s voice emanates the rough and tumble timbre of the working person trying to make sense of his or her life amid all of its challenges, and his audiences are grateful for his chronicling of events that mirror those of their own lives.
In Prine’s songs, deep truths lie behind the quaint observations and homespun anecdotes. “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring.” Has a truer line about the epiphany of romantic delusion ever been written? Prine sings the songs we’d sing if we could master his deceptively simple sense of internal rhyme and masterful oratorical skill. From a distance, his songs sound like compositions anyone could write. In practice, they are as economical, as shrewd and as carefully constructed as a Shakespearean sonnet and as direct in their implication as a Zen koan. Beneath the casual presentation, each word is honed and shone to perfection to such an extent that it’s somewhat unsettling to realize they didn’t come hurling down in fire and light to nestle into the primal ooze as earth cooled and fish began to walk on land.
In the same way that you may not pull out albums by The Beatles, Bob Marley or Bob Dylan because you’ve heard the songs so many times that they’ve blurred in your memory, many of Prine’s tunes have been around the block so often that they’re overlooked and rarely considered. For my part, I’ve continued to go to see John Prine live when he passes through Vancouver every few years, and it is still a wonderful experience to hear him interact with his music and his audience. I may not listen to his albums very much in between, but the release of two new CDs of Prine songs has sent me deep into his back catalogue to remind me that he still – despite all the accolades – remains a relatively underappreciated artist. So, if it’s been some time since you’ve checked out Prine’s music, the release of “In person and on stage” and “Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows”, a newly minted tribute album represent a great opportunity to hear these timeless songs again.
“In Person and On Stage” is John Prine’s third official live album and is just as good as anyone could hope for. If listening to Prine and his long time cohorts Jason Wilber on guitar and Dave Jacques on basses rip through a Bo Diddley-fied rave up of “Spanish Pipedream” and a still relevant take of “your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore” doesn’t quite live up to the first time you heard them, it is nevertheless staggering to experience how the simple perfect beauty of these songs has deepened –rather than diminished – over the years. Fans of Prine’s storytelling will enjoy his hilarious introductions to “The Bottomless Lake” and “Glory of True Love” and marvel at how he can make jokes he’s told hundreds of times still seem funny. This set also captures some wonderful duets. Prine veterans know that the signer usually brings his opening act out to sing with him at some point during the show, and selections featuring Iris Dement, Sara Watkins, Josh Ritter and Kane Welch Kaplan all help give new life to some very familiar tunes. Of these duets, the version of “Angel from Montgomery” sung with Emmylou Harris is in itself worth the price of admission.
Tribute albums are often a mixed bag, and “Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows” is no exception – though to be fair there really isn’t a dud on the whole disc. It’s just that – as good as Justin Townes Earle’s version of “Far From Me” or Sara Watkins “Late John Garfield Blues” are- nobody can sing John Prine like John Prine can. Still, there are some very worthy attempts to find new ways of singing these songs as Justin Vernon and Lambchop demonstrate with interesting versions of “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” and “Six O’clock News” respectively. These songs succeed partially because the singers were able to relax into the narratives and make the stories their own. Conor Oberst isn’t nearly as successful with his version of “Wedding Day in Funeralville” as he seems to be bucking against the current, finding nowhere to stand within the story. Similarily, My Morning Jacket’s take on “All the Best” seems to lack an emotional heart as Jim James sounds more beautiful than he does convincing as he tries to inhabit Prine’s lyrics.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece, it’s hard to remember a time when John Prine’s music wasn’t a part of the soundtrack to many of our lives. His songs full of poetic questions, private victories and public defeats, thorny truths and uncomfortable lies have created a universe of their own. Listening to these two new releases from OhBoy records has reminded me why I first got into music so many years ago, and that none of the storytelling folk singers who have come in Prine’s wake – from Billy Bragg to Steve Earle and everyone in between – haven’t really been able to equal his output. John Prine is a living treasure, and the world continues to be so much richer with him as a part of it.
This article also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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