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John Prine Classics - In His Own Words

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

In 1993, a two-disc CD titled Great Days – The John Prine Anthology was released by Rhino Records. It comprised 41 songs chosen by John Prine to best represent the first 20-odd years of his extraordinary career as one of America’s great singer-songwriters.

While the musical collection is wonderful, just as good is the accompanying liner notes compiled in a 50-page booklet. It begins with a personal note from Prine:

“Writing is about a blank piece of paper and leaving out what’s not supposed to be there. Here’s 41 songs collected under the title of Great Days.

There were many great days and many not so great days.

I tried to turn them all into great songs.”

The first half of the album notes provides a quick sketch of his early years in Chicago - together with childhood and family photos – before providing much details of the early years of a career which began at an open-mike night at Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg in 1970.

In between the text of a rapidly-expanding career, there are a number of fascinating photos of Prine mingling with his musical mentors of those formative years – Steve Goodman, Kris Kristofferson, Ronnie Hawkins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Nancy Griffith, Townes Van Zandt, Iris DeMent, Bonnie Raitt etc.

As interesting as all this, it gets better. The last 20 pages are devoted to Prine’s personal reflections which provide a simply fascinating insight into the mind one of the best story-tellers in modern music.

Here is John Prine’s own words on a dozen of those 41 songs from 1971-93:

Sam Stone 1971

“There’s no one person who was the basis for “Sam Stone”, more like three or four people, like a couple of my buddies who came back from Vietnam and some of the guys I serviced with in the Army. At the time, all the other Vietnam songs were basic protest songs, made up to slap each other on the back like ‘yeah this is the right cause.’ I don’t remember any other songs that talked about the soldiers at all.

I came up with the chorus first and decided I really liked the part about the ‘hole in daddy’s arm.’ I had this picture in my mind of a little girl, like Little Orphan Annie, shaking her head back and forth while a rainbow of money goes into dad’s arm. I think I invented the character of Sam Stone as story line just to get around to that chorus.”

Hello in There 1971

"I heard the John Lennon song “Across the Universe,” and he had a lot of reverb in his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody – “Hello in There.” That was the beginning thought; then it went to old people.

I always had affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I’d deliver to a Baptist old people’s home where you’d have to go room-to-room, and some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit instead of the guy delivering newspapers. That always stuck in my head.

It was all that stuff, together with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve ever done a show without singing “Hello in There.” Nothing in it ever wears on me.”

Angel from Montgomery 1971

“I had a buddy named Eddie Holstein in Chicago who was a song-writer – he later became a club owner – and he wanted to co-write with me. I’d just written “Hello In There,” I hadn’t even recorded yet, and this was the first time anybody asked me to co-write. I liked Eddie a lot and just because of that I said sure.

I said: ‘What do you want to write about?’ And he said, ‘I really like that song you got about people, “Hello in There. ”’ I said, ‘Eddie, that’s all I got to say about old people. How about one a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is?’ He said ‘Okay.’ I wrote the first verse, and he lost interest in her. A week later, I finished the thing. Eddie always used to tell people I was writing about this Montgomery Ward building in Chicago, which has an angel on top that sticks out on a flagpole. I didn’t know that, but that’s where Eddie thought I got the idea.

The woman, she’s gonna keep fixing dinner, living in this house, staying married. She probably won’t get up the nerve to leave the guy. But it’s just that – a portrait of a lot of people who are doing that.”

Spanish Pipedream 1971

“I wrote this when I started performing. I thought the first song of the show should be up and bouncy. I could only play two rhythm, fast and slow, so this was written to go with my fast, bouncy rhythm.

Originally, the chorus wasn’t about blowing up your TV. It was something about the girl forgetting to take the ‘pill,’ but it sunk pretty low after the first great verse. I sounded like Loretta Lynn singing about ‘The Pill.’ Then I got the line ‘blow up your TV.’ I used to keep a small bowl of real fine pebbles that I picked up on my mail route, and if somebody said something really stupid on TV, I’d throw some of them at the screen.”

Illegal Smile 1971

“I have to confess, the song was not about smokin’ dope. It was about how, since I was a child, I’ve had this view of the world where I would find myself smiling at stuff body else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer.

When I first started singing it, I went on this underground TV program, and the only stage set they had was two chairs and this fake marijuana plant. I came on and sang “Illegal Smile,” and they kept having the cameras pan in, real psychedelic-like, on the plant. On top of that, I got fined by the musicians union for not taking money to do the show.”

Paradise 1971

I wrote it for my father, mainly so he would know I was a song-writer. “Paradise” was a real place in Kentucky, and while I was away in the Army, my father sent me a newspaper article telling how the coal company had bought he place out. It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on a river, had two general stores, and there was one black man in town, Bubby Short, who looked like Uncle Remus and hung out with my Granddaddy Ham, my mom’s da, all day, fishing for catfish. Then the bulldozers came in and wiped it all off the map.

When I recorded the song, I brought a tape of the record home to my dad; I had to borrow a reel-to-reel machine to play it for him. When the song came on, he went into the next room and sat in the dark while it was on. I asked him why and said he wanted to pretend it was on the duke box.”

The Great Compromise 1972

“The idea I had in mind was that America was this girl you used to take to the drive-in movies. And then when you went to get some popcorn, she turned around and screwed some guy in a foreign sports car. I really love America. I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”

The Late John Garfield Blues 1972

“What I was writing about was how late Sunday night going into Monday morning was always a weird period of time. Whether you were apprehensive about work or school, it was like the twilight zone. At first, the song was called ‘The Late Sunday, Early Monday Morning Blues.’ I finally decided to make it like the kind of movie that would be on TV at that hour, a John Garfield movie. It’s not so much about him, the actor; I used this character to get into something else.

When Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge got together, they moved into house on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles. They had an acetate of the record, and then they played that song, the electricity went out in the house. The next day, they found out that John Garfield used to own the place. It’s a good thing it wasn’t a song about John Garfield, or he’d have been turning my lights out.”

Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone 1978

I was flying out of Minneapolis-St Paul, toward the end of a tour. I had this vision of the look on Sabu the Elephant Boy’s face in the old jungle movies; he always had this dazed and confused look. And I saw myself like that in the mirror. I just looked like, ‘What am I doing here?’ When things get really crazy for me or confusing, I usually turn to humor and try to explain the situation in a song.

It was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself. I wasn’t even sure, while I was writing it, what I was writing about. I wouldn’t show it to anybody for a month. I was pretty introspective at the time, going through a very low period emotionally. And that song, I’m not sure I saw the humor in it initially. But as soon as I started singing it, people really dug it.”

Bruised Orange (Chain Of Sorrow) 1978

I had a job at 15 working at an Episcopal Church as a janitor. I was pew dustin’, cross polishin’, lawn mowing, snow shovelin’ son of a gun. Early one Sunday morning, I was walking through the alley by the church to shovel snow before the congregation arrived. All that’s out there on the streets at that time on Sunday mornings are paper boys, altar boys, and guys like me. Turns out one of the altar boys on his way to the Catholic church was walking down the train tracks. God only knows where his mind was, but a local commuter train came from behind and they had to put him in bush baskets – that was left.

I saw a bunch of mothers standing near the accident, not knowing who the boy was. When they finally identified the boy, the mother broke down, and the other mothers consoled her but with a great sense of relief. This story is coupled with a shattered romance, juxtaposed with a loss of innocence. ‘My heart’s in the ice house/Come hill or come valley.’”

Unwed Fathers 1984

“I wrote this with Bobby Braddock; he wrote “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and D.I.V.O.R.C.E. We got fooled into writing together. There was this girl that worked at Tree Publishing. She was good friends with Bobby, and she told me Bobby was dying to write with me. And she told Bobby that John Prine was dying to write with him. So we called each other, flattered, and found out neither of us had said such a thing. But it turned out to be a really good thing.

We decided we were going to write at this house the day after the Super Bowl back in ’81 or ’82. He usually liked to start out with a title. So while I was watching the Super Bowl, I wrote down 15 lines, including ‘Children Having Children’ and ‘Unwed Fathers.” I was reading the list off to him and al the light went on with those two. We kind of combined them and went right into it.”

Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness 1986

“The song just came to me all at once. I had this picture in my head of this old photograph – and I think it was Life magazine – of one of the astronauts in the 50’s with his face all contorted by the G-force. I was thinking of somebody’s heart being pulled apart by G-force like that, from going through this real intense breakup of a relationship. The song actually reminds me of The Louvin Brothers, the song they did called ‘”Runnin’ Wild.” It’s written about someone that’s runnin’ wild out there, breaking the speed of the sound of loneliness.”

(Excerpts from Liner Notes to Great Days – The John Prine Anthology @ 1993 Rhino Records Inc.)


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