THE READING ROOM: ‘Prine on Prine’ Collects Decades of Interviews
When John Prine died on April 7, 2020, he left behind a sumptuous banquet of lyrically ingenious songs that captured the vagaries of the lives of individuals whom society had consigned to its margins. Prine was better than any other songwriter at evoking the loneliness of these characters and the means they used to assuage the emotional hollowness that grows out of living in liminal spaces.
Prine, unlike many folk and rock musicians of his day, didn’t leave an autobiography, in part because he was reluctant to put the spotlight on himself. As music writer Holly Gleason explains in her new book, Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters, “John Prine hated interviews. Hated them. Hated talking about himself, hated taking apart the songs. Hated every speck of self-aggrandizement or fawning reporter repartee. It’s not that he wasn’t gracious. Nor did he think he was above it. But putting the attention on him made him feel awkward, even a little strange.”
In this riveting selection of 39 interviews and reflections, which range from 1970 to 2020, Gleason gives us John Prine in his own words, and we have the chance once again to hear his voice speaking about his life, his albums, his family and friendships, and his songwriting. Each interview is preceded either by a brief introduction by Gleason to set the context of the piece or by a reminiscence by the writers themselves. “In this anthology, amid the stories, scripts, speeches, and conversations, there are many tales of how they happened,” Gleason writes. “In some ways, what wasn’t written in the pieces is even more insightful and delicious than the work assembled here … It’s why the introductions to some of these pieces are longer than just the standard where, when, how, and what of Prine’s career. Prine’s graciousness to Cameron Crowe’s sister, his evolving conversations with those journalists with multiple entries, his impact on fellow heartland songwriter John Mellencamp, and his acute curiosity, basic decency, and introspection, far deeper than many people realized — all these and more show a respect and generosity to those people who penetrated the border.”
In early interviews, such as Prine’s 1975 conversation with the iconic Chicago radio personality and author Studs Terkel, the conversation ranges over how Prine got started playing music and writing songs: “My brother taught me a couple of chords on the guitar, and I started writing right away. I wrote a song one night. My first song took me about three hours; I went downstairs and I told my mother I wrote a song. She sat down to listen to it, and I got about halfway through; I was picking it, and she started singing ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken.’ I got so embarrassed, I don’t even know a word to that song today! I just threw the lyrics away and didn’t write anything for a little while after that. I didn’t know, I thought I had my own tune.”
In his interview with Crowe, Prine shares the reasons he writes, with his typical wit: “I write the way I do for several reasons. One, the songs are for myself. I didn’t hear songs like this. So I figured if nobody else was gonna write them, I might as well, so I could hear them. The second is because I tend to put things very basically … and if I could write songs in the same manner, then I could get people to accept them, and enjoy them.”
In his 1985 television appearance on Bobby Bare and Friends, Bare and Prine trade jokes and keep the audience laughing as they discuss Prine’s friendship with Steve Goodman, Prine’s early songs, and Prine’s writing style. Prine closes the interview with a hilarious take on his songwriting: “Well, I think I write the way that I do because of a vitamin deficiency. I don’t eat any vegetables. I just eat meat and potatoes. I think I’m trying to make up for in my writing what I lack in vitamins. ’Cause some of the songs are pretty weird. Some of the songs, I don’t tell people about right away ’cause I don’t know what they’re gonna think about them. I’ve heard other songwriters say sometimes a song just comes to you, and if you don’t write it down, it’s just gonna go on down the street — and somebody else is going to write that same song. They travel around like that.”
Journalist and cookbook author Ronni Lundy interviewed Prine for her 1991 cookbook Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens. She includes recipes from Prine’s mother, Verna, for pork roast and other dishes, and toward the end of the chapter in her book, Prine tells her, “In order to write songs, I need to get my mind somewhere else. I can’t have my total concentration on my writing. So I write when I’m driving, when I’m cooking. I very rarely write behind the guitar. Cooking’s one of the best times for me to write.”
The penultimate interview in Prine on Prine is music writer Bob Mehr’s 2020 conversation with Prine for MOJO. (The chapter in this book is titled “MOJO: The Last In-Depth Interview.”) Mehr and Prine talk on the occasion of the release of Prine’s Grammy-nominated 2018 album Tree of Forgiveness. Mehr notes that the album “testifies to enduring skills” and “the growth of his audience, including a crop of acclaimed young artists — starring Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves — plus continuing support from the old guard, including Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant who, it turns out, Prine’s wife has just run into shopping in nearby Green Hills.”
Prine admits to Mehr: “I write mostly out of fear now. I have to have a deadline.” When Mehr asks Prine if he feels “vindicated for having done things your own way this whole time,” Prine replies: “Everything I was doing all those years on the road, I thought I was just doing to get enough money to pay the bills, to put one foot in front of the other. But it’s all coming back to me now in the best way possible. I always believed in what I was writing, but I never expected a bigger audience. If you’re out there day after day, going around playing the same places, you pretty much think you’ve reached your audience. But there’s more people finding my music every day. So I feel extremely lucky, I really do.”
In her afterword, Gleason concludes: “He evolved over the years, but he never changed his core truths. He was willing to scrape away the hubris and rhetorical build-up he saw around him to write what felt like basic songs that sucker punched transgressors with a wink or a child’s innocence. That was his magic.”
Prine on Prine celebrates the genius of one our most beloved, and sorely missed, songwriters and serves as an excellent introduction to Prine’s career.
Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters, edited by Holly Gleason, was published Sept. 12 by Chicago Review Press.