The club was called the Quiet Knight. It was on the North side of Chicago. The year was 1971. The man at the microphone was Kris Kristofferson, already a superstar. He was there to introduce a 25-year-old largely-unknown local singer-songwriter named John Prine.
Kristofferson, always the master of a clever-dick line, declared: “John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”
Prine and his Martin guitar didn’t disappoint either Kristofferson or the small folk-club audience. He then delivered a stunning ballad about a drug-addled war veteran whose kids ran around wearing other people’s clothes. The song was called “Sam Stone” and contains one of the most imaginative and potent lines in modern music – There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes.
And in that same year, “Sam Stone” would be one of 13 original tracks on John Prine’s self-titled debut album - an album so good it would be included in Rolling Stone magazine's list of 500 greatest albums of all time.
mist of the 500 greatest albums of all time
Prine himself was now on course to being a superstar. He had been performing less than two years.
Prine was born on October 10, 1946, in the Chicago working-class suburb of Maywood. He was the third of four sons born to William and Vera Prine who had moved to Illinois from Western Kentucky to escape the drudgery of a coal mining life. William would find a job as a tool and die worker and become president of the local steelworkers’ union.
Music was soon flowing through John’s veins, helped by trips through the family hills-of-home in Kentucky. His oldest brother Dave taught him to play guitar, finger-picking to Carter Family records and later folk songs. By 14 he was writing songs – two of these early treasures ended up on his second album – and he would attend classes at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music.
When he graduated from high school in 1964, he went to work for the U.S. Postal Service. This was the era of the Vietnam War and he was soon drafted into the U.S. Army, serving, not in Asia, but in Germany where he spent two years working in the Army motor pool and playing guitar at night in the barracks.
Following his discharge, he returned to delivering mail round the streets of Chicago. Such drudgery only nourished his creative ambitions. As he walked the streets, events would trigger song titles and lyrics deep inside his head.
It all came together in early 1970 when he made his public debut at an open-mike night at a Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg. And at that time he made two life-changing acquaintances. The first was a another young Illinois troubadour called Steve Goodman who introduced him to the second, Kris Kristofferson, by now an acclaimed singer-songwriter in his own right.
Getting Kristofferson’s endorsement was enough to quit delivering mail. And soon both Prine and Goodman were off to New York. Soon after they arrived, they went to a Kristofferson show at the Bitter End. At the invitation of the star, John went onstage and did three songs. Sitting in the audience was Jerry Wexler, the boss of Atlantic Records. The next day he offered Prine a record deal.
All but one of the tracks on the debut John Prine album were cut at the American Sound Studios in Memphis. “I was terrified,” Prine would write in the Liner notes to his Anthology album Great Days. “I went straight from playing by myself, still learning how to sing, to playing with Elvis Presley’s rhythm section. It’s not an easy album for me to listen to, because I can hear in my voice how uncomfortable I felt at the time. But I loved the sound of the record, and I can see how for a lot of people it’s their favorite record of mine.”
It was not only a favorite of fans, but also Prine’s peers. At least five of the tracks would become genre classics – “Hello in There,” Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Angel from Montgomery” - and be recorded by countless artists including Johnny Cash, John Fogarty, Don Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Steve Goodman, John Denver, Bette Midler, Dwight Yoakim. The list goes on.
And throughout nearly 50 years of concert tours, those early songs remained an essential ingredient in any Prine playlist.
Though it reached only 154 on the U.S. charts, the critics were unanimous in their praise of the original album and many were quick to draw comparisons to Bob Dylan.
“When Prine realized his eponymous debut album in 1971, everyone in the music industry was looking for a new Dylan, and Prine was quickly nailed as a promising contender.” wrote Rolling Stone’s David Fricke. “But from the start, Prine was very much his own man, a plainspoken writer with a keen reporter’s eye and a rocker’s heart. His songs drew on real life and personal experience as filtered not only through Dylan and the 1960’s folk explosion, but through Prine’s early love of Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Critic William Ruhlman wrote in Allmusic: "A revelation upon its release, this album is now a collection of standards ... Prine's music, a mixture of folk, rock, and country, is deceptively simple, like his pointed lyrics, and his easy vocal style, adds a humorous edge that makes otherwise funny jokes downright hilarious."
Kristofferson best anticipated the praise to come with one line in the album's liner notes - "Twenty-four years old and writes like he's two-hundred and twenty."
There were two songs in particular - "Hello in There" and "Angel from Montgomery" - which reflected on the loneliness of middle and old age and left one wondering how someone that young could tap into this sub-consciousness.
When asked where he got the phrase "Hello in There," Prine told Bluerailroad he was motivated by delivering newspapers to a Baptist old people's home: "When I was writing songs, I thought these people have entire lives in there. They're not writers but they have stories to tell. Some are very deep down, deeper than others."
Joan Baez would record "Hello in There" and it would become a standard in her live list. During Prine's final days, she was to post on You Tube a beautiful rendition of the song, recorded in her kitchen during the Covid-19 self-isolation period.
"Angel from Montgomery" is regarded by many as Prine's finest work, helped somewhat by a sensational cover by multi-Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. The song tells the story, in first-person, of a middle-aged woman who feels older than she should and contains an opening verse few songwriters could ever match for lyrical wordplay:
I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that's grown old
If dreams were lightning, thunder were desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago
Prine told Bluerailroad: " ... I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands ... She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come and take her away from all this."
In fact, one of the most haunting recordings of "Angel from Montgomery" is a duet by Prine and Raitt recorded in January 1985, a get-together motivated by sadness - the death of good friend Steve Goodman, who had found fame as composer of the Arlo Guthrie train-song "City of New Orleans." Goodman died in September 1984 after a long battle with leukemia and the Prine/Raitt duet would be included in a Tribute to Steve Goodman album released in 1986.
Another song from John Prine that became forever attached to Prine was "Paradise" - so much so that it became his signature concert encore tune in later years.
"Paradise" was the one song off John Prine not recorded in Memphis. It was cut at A&R Studios in New York, with brother Dave and Goodman as sidemen. Prine wrote it after his father had sent him a newspaper clipping telling how the Peabody Coal Company had purchased a town called Paradise in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, near where the Prine family had originated.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mr Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe is reported to have paid Prine the ultimate compliment when they first met late in the seventies. He was introduced to Bill as the writer of “the song about Muhlenberg County ” - not far from where the Monroe’s were from - and Bill said: “Oh yeah I thought that was a song I overlooked from the twenties.”
Not surprisingly, Atlantic wasted little time in delivering a second album, Diamonds In The Rough ( 1972), which, according to Prine, was recorded and mixed in just three days. This was a lot more home-spun than the first. There was no “Elvis Presley rhythm” this time, most of the backing coming from pal Goodman and David Bromberg on guitar and brother Dave Prine on dobro, banjo and fiddle.
“I just wanted to do Diamonds the way I was used to playing music at my house with Dave and Steve,” said Prine. “But it’s taken me years to figure out how to balance those first two records. About every other record, after making a real studio or rock ‘ roll album, I’d come back and do a Diamonds In The Rough.”
As in the first, with songs like “Sam Stone” and “Your Decal Won’t Get You To Heaven Anymore,” the second album saw Prine continue his disillusionment with America during the Vietnam War era. “The Great Compromise” said it all:
I used to sleep at the foot of old glory
And awake in the dawn's early light
But much to my surprise
When I opened my eyes
I was a victim of the great compromise
He wrote in Great Days: "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."
There would be two more albums - Sweet Revenge and Common Sense - before Prine would abruptly end his association with Atlantic Records in 1976. "I said I'm not making money for you. Let me go. And they did."
Prine moved from studios to live gigs and by the late seventies he was on the road as much as nine-months a year - a routine that was to become a life-long obsession, even when he entered his seventies and launched a global promotion of what would be his last album, the Grammy-nominated The Tree of Forgiveness.
In 1978, Prine released his first album for three years. Bruised Orange was produced by Goodman and marked the start of a brief association with Elektra/Asylum. There would be two other L.P.'s from this relationship - the raucous Pink Cadilallic (1979) and the more intimate Storm Windows (1980).
It was in the early eighties that Prine, now firmly ensconced in Nashville, decided to end his sometimes-rocky relationships with the big companies and take firm control of his recordings. Along with manager Al Bunetta, he established the independent label Oh Boy Records which survived his lifetime.
The first release by Oh Boy was Aimless Love (1984), a collection of songs co-written with the likes of Roger Cook, Bobby Braddock and Donnie Fritts. One of the album's co-writes (with Braddock), "Unwed Fathers," would become a Prine classic and again personify his uncanny ability to paint a musical portrait of down-on-your-luck America:
On somewhere else bound, Smokey Mountain Greyhound
She bows her head down, hummin' lullabies
'Your daddy never, meant to hurt you ever'
'He just don't live here, but you've got his eyes'
At the same time, his writing collaboration - this time with Roger Cook - would produce "Love Is On A Roll" which would become a #1 country hit for Don Williams.
Oh Boy’s next release German Afternoons, in 1986, included another signature song “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness,” a track critic David Fricke would describe as "a hypnotic song of lovesick melancholia set to a simple, mid-tempo rhythm that sounded like the desolate ticking of a hall-way clock."
Prine told Rolling Stone in 2017: “I wrote that song not caring if anybody ever heard it. It was that I got it down on paper. I got down what was kind of running my whole life at the time. It was this record that kept playing over and over; it was just something I had to get out of me. I didn’t know, or care, if anybody else could relate to that song. It turns out people relate to it in loads of different ways.”
German Afternoons would be nominated for a Grammy, in the Best Contemporary Folk Recording category. It was his second nomination. In 1973, John Prine had earned him a nomination for Best New Artist. He would go on to receive a total of 11 Grammy nominations, three of them from his final album The Tree of Forgiveness, and eventually score two Awards, both in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. The first was The Missing Years in 1992 and the second for Fair And Square in 2006.
The Missing Years was produced by Tom Petty bass player Howie Epstein, a long-time fan of Prine's. Most of the tracks were recorded at Epstein's residence in Los Angeles. As a result, a number of big names - Petty, Albert Lee, Phil Everly, Bruce Springsteen - made guest appearances.
Prine had just been through a second divorce and many of the tracks were from the heart-on-his-sleeve, "All The Best" providing the best example:
I guess that love is like a Christmas card
You decorate a tree, you throw it in the yard
It decays and dies and the snowmen melt
Well I once knew love, I knew how love felt
By the time Prine won his second Grammy, for Fair and Square, he had been long married for a third time, to Fiona Whelan, who would serve as a career mentor and manager during those final creative years.
Fair and Square was another album littered with co-writes, but the two best numbers were cover tracks. Prine's rendition of Blaze Foley's mesmerising "Clay Pigeons" was so good it would become regarded as his own. And his version of A.P. Carter's "Bear Creek Blues" would have all of the famous family rocking in their proverbial graves.
But there was one track that belonged very much to Prine and it saw him return to his anti-war sentiment of the seventies. This was now the 21st Century and one President George W. Bush had reminded Americans of the bad old days by making an unpopular war. "Some Humans Ain't Human" said it all:
Or you're feeling your freedom And the world's off your back Some cowboy from Texas Starts his own war in Iraq
Prine's reputation as a songwriter's songwriter was personified by the number of top artists eager to work with him in all facets of the creative process. And there was no better illustration than in the two albums - In Spite of Ourselves and For Better, Or Worse - in which Prine teamed up with some of the best female vocalists in the folk and alt-country genre. And it would so happen that both would be produced in the shadow of the two cancer scares he was to suffer.
In Spite of Ourselves was released in 1999 and was his first studio album about a year after being diagnosed with squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck. He underwent major surgery followed by radiation therapy. The operation severed nerves in his tongue and added a more raspy tone to his voice. And For Better, Or Worse, in 2016, was his first release following surgery to remove cancer in his left lung.
Of the 31 songs produced, for both albums, only one - the title track "In Spite of Ourselves" - was written by Prine. The rest are a collection of vintage country songs carefully chosen to work with the female partners, including wife Fiona, who is only one of two - the other being Iris DeMent - to feature in both albums.
The first of the two compilations got the best reception, with Allmusic critic Michael Smith writing: "In Spite of Ourselves ranks as one of Prine's finest works, a scrapbook of country classics, interpreted by some of the genre's best female vocalists, in duet with one fine American singer and a great songwriter."
Prine's18th and final studio album - The Tree of Forgiveness - in 2018 came 13 years after his last solo effort and would prove to be his most successful, both in the charts - it reached #5 on the Billboard 200 - and critical acclaim. Besides the three Grammy nominations, it would see him named Artist of the Year at the 2018 Americana Music Awards and sweep both albums and song categories at the same awards the following year. To top it all, in 2020 the Recording Academy would give him a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Tree of Forgiveness came about when wife Fiona and son Jody, now running Oh Boy Records, told him it was time for another album. To speed up the creative process, they booked him a suite at his favourite hotel in Nashville, together with three guitars and ten boxes of unfinished lyrics.
He emerged about a week later with 10 songs, many co-written, and within a week he was in the studio with producer du jour Dave Cobb. For the critics, it was back to the future - spanning 50 years. Rolling Stone's headline said it all:" His first album of originals in more than a decade has all the qualities that have defined him as one of America’s greatest songwriters.”
Critic Will Hermes continued: "... it’s very good, frequently brilliant, with all the qualities that define Prine’s music. It also shows, literally and figuratively, the voice of a man in his seventies. After neck surgery in 1998 to remove a squamous cell carcinoma, and more surgery to treat lung cancer in 2013, Prine’s plainspoken tenor creaks like an wide-plank old floor in winter. What his voice misses in range is made up for intermittently by harmony vocals from Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, Prine’s artistic offspring all.”
Pitchfork's Kelab Horton: "This album does not contain a line like Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose. It contains lines about porches and washing machines and shadows on ceilings. But in their own quiet, ramshackle ways, they're about being alive and what it means to be alive."
There is nothing ramshackle about "Summer's End," a co-write with long-collaborator Pat McLaughlin and a song which would become the album's much-hyped single. It is about heartbreak and human loss and would become linked - through a sophisticated promotional video - to the U.S. opioid crisis. But, in the midst of such misery, Prine still has some rhyming fun with lines like: That ol' Easter egg ain't got a leg to stand on
Not surprisingly, it is two songs written by Prine alone which shine brightest on The Tree of Forgiveness.
““The Lonesome Friends of Science” sees Prine at his whimsical, foolish best. He pokes a big stick at the likes of climate-change deniers and conspiracy theorists. And the last track “When I Get To Heaven” prophetically addresses mortality, setting out his afterlife agenda which includes smoking a cigarette nine-miles long and opening up a nightclub called “The Tree of Forgiveness.”
To promote the album, Prine gathered together some of the best musicians on offer. Besides regular sidemen Dave Jacques and Jason Wilber, he would be joined by Ken Blevins on drums and legendary Nashville session-man Fats Kaplin on anything else! They would embark on a global tour of sell-out shows, encompassing more than two years. Throughout it all, Prine was at his brilliant best.
There was no better display than at the opening concert of a Down Under (Australia/New Zealand) tour in Auckland in February 2019. The Eagles were playing in the city's downtown arena on the same night, but Prine still packed out a theatre on the north side, a venue renown for fine acoustics. He and the band, which now included Emmylou Harris drummer Bryan Owings, milked every ounce out of the fine music hall.
In a format, typical of his final years on the road, the show was in three parts. The first half ended with the band belting out "Lake Marie" while Prine pranced around the stage - as he best he could. The band then retreated and the man himself delivered a solo set, the highlight being "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness." When the musicians returned, they soon brought on opening-act Tyler Childers and Fiona Prine who contributed to "Paradise" during a stirring encore which was to include a final goodbye - "When I Get to Heaven."
Speaking of Heaven, one can only imagine the songwriter's songwriter sitting there now at his new nightclub "The Tree of Forgiveness." Surrounded by the likes of Blaze, and Guy, and Townes, he slowly finger-picks his guitar, then looks up and calls out to a man in the corner:
"Hey Hal, do you have a word which goes with covid?"
Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation