Review: Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine
It would be awkward to describe John Prine as an elder statesmen of Americana music, American songwriting, or anything else. This is not because Prine lacks the talent, credentials, and history to deserve such a title (or one with more grandeur for that matter); it’s because Prine’s personality doesn’t fit with such accolades. Rarely does an artist of such accomplishment exude such an unpretentious authenticity as John Prine, a trait equally present in his songwriting. I suppose the legendary singer-songwriter is more like a folk hero, accessible to the masses for the genius of his craft rather than calculated pandering or glossy production. Or maybe he’s more like a charming, charismatic, and down-to-Earth uncle you secretly hope thinks of you, too, as a favorite relative. Perhaps the young artists covering Prine on Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine have a similar feeling, hoping for Prine’s approval as they take the reigns of some of his most revered tunes.
I had the pleasure of seeing Prine last weekend at Bonnaroo and was pleasantly surprised to see a packed tent full of people of all ages singing along with Prine and his three piece band, (he and the other two band members were decked out in formal suits despite the 95-degree heat.) One of the highlights of his set was when Ketch Secor and Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show came out to sing “Angel from Montgomery,” which they cover on the album. OCMS is just one of many younger bands on Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows, a lineup that is a who’s who of Americana music. While tribute albums can be a tricky affair, this one is pretty damn solid throughout. Of course, I like some tunes much more than others and can’t help but want to play producer on the album. For instance, I’d love to switch the tunes and artists, and maybe add a few songs not featured on the album. While Old Crow does a beautiful job on “Angel from Montgomery,” I’d love to hear Sara Watkins’ clear, earnest vocal delivery in a song about a woman’s desperate isolation. Or maybe the Avett Brothers would have been better suited to a song with such strong emotional symbolism. Instead, they offered a raucous rendition of “Spanish Pipedream,” a tune which seems tailor-made for Old Crow. I’m also surprised no younger artists took a shot at “Sam Stone” or even “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” both songs that resonate greatly today while we’re in the midst of two seemingly never-ending wars (both tunes were played by Prine at Bonnaroo to great reception from the crowd.) Lastly, why no “Illegal Smile”???!! Really? The staccato pro-pot-sing-along would have been perfect for the youthful queens of country party anthems, Those Darlins. I really have trouble forgiving that one. But back to the album that was actually recorded rather than the one knocking around my imagination.
John Prine with Ketch Secor & Willie Watson of OCMS at Bonnaroo 2010
Part of the fun in the album is hearing which artists try to put their own spin on Prine songs and which are more comfortable imitating his casual as your next door neighbor delivery. The Drive By Truckers transform “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” with a hard-charging rockabilly swing that picks up on the subtle hints in that direction found on Prine’s 1997 Live on Tour album. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver brings his ethereal vocal production to “Bruised Orange” which retains the spirit of the song while putting a wholly unique stamp on it at the same time. Others offer a more straight ahead interpretation of Prine’s songs, including My Morning Jacket’s wonderful “All the Best” and Josh Ritter’s “Mexican Home,” delivered with nothing but the accompaniment of his guitar.
Of course, the great thing about tribute albums is the opportunity to introduce listeners to new artists. Perhaps fans of some of the younger artists will be inspired to pick up some classic Prine albums, and Prine fans will discover some new artists. As for the latter category, I was totally smitten by Liz Isenberg’s vocals on “Unwed Fathers,” where she sat in with Deer Tick (apparently she’s a frequent collaborator with those guys.) To be honest, I’m not at all familiar with Isenberg (and have been a little slow to warm to Deer Tick), but her first solo verse on that song makes me melt each time I hear it. It might just be the highlight of the album for me, even though some of my favorite working musicians are featured covering some of my favorite Prine tunes. That’s exactly the type of discovery a good tribute album can engender, and Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows offers many such moments.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.