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Stars Innovate 50 Years of John Prine Music

It is 50 years since the world first heard the music of John Prine, one of America's grestest songwriters

Fifty-years ago this month, a young Chicago postman, turned-singer-songwriter, released a self-titled album called John Prine. It would have a profound influence on the musical genre now known as Americana and indeed music itself.

For the 13 songs in the 22-year-old army vet’s debut album would not only help define the modern folk/country genre but also provide an inspiration to song-writers of future generations who wanted to reflect the daily drudgery of ordinary people in song – albeit spiced with humour

Four of the songs on John Prine - “Angel from Montgomery,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone” and “Paradise” - would become timeless standards and as such would be interpreted by many great artists over the years.

And indeed, as might be expected, these particular numbers all feature in the new John Prine tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine, Vol 2 which has been released to mark the 40th anniversary of the founding of Oh Boy records which Prine and his manager Al Bunetta established in 1981. And it also serves as an on-going obit for Prine who died at age 73 in April 2020 from complications caused by the COVID virus.

Volume 1 of Broken Hearts was released by Oh Boy more than ten years ago.

For John Prine purists, the key question from Vol 2 is what interpretation is left for Bonnie Raitt to give to “Angel from Montgomery.” Raitt’s original version - off her 1974 album Streetlights - not only gave the song international recognition but somewhat defined her Grammy-winning career.

They will not be disappointed. Raitt’s latest rendition is astonishingly simple, with soft acoustic backing and, at times, almost talkin’ blues slow! It is quite ageless, as it should be given her countless versions with various artists, including, of course, Prine over the years.

And the same Prine purists will be interested to know that she returns to Prine’s original legendary stanza:

If dreams were lightning

And thunder was desire

This old house would have burnt down

A long time ago

In her 1974 version, and many subsequent recordings, she changed lines:

If dreams were thunder

And lightning was desire

Prine’s other classic reflection on the elderly “Hello in There” also gets quite distinctive treatment. This time by the Queen of Nashville Emmylou Harris, who is at her haunting best with an also slow, melodic rendition of the song Prine was inspired to write after delivering newspapers to an old folks home while in his teens. Harris fans will no doubt hang on every tone when she delivers: We lost Davey in the Korean War/Still don’t know what for/Don’t matter anymore

Emmylou’s father, an air force veteran, was held prisoner during the Korean War!

It is no surprise that Sturgill Simpson, a Kentucky native, has covered “Paradise” the song Prine wrote about strip coal mining in an area around the Green River in Kentucky near where his parents were born. As might be expected, this lament is tailor-made for Simpson’s gritty Appalachian drawl

The final song from Prine’s debut classic “Sam Stone” also gets a version full of vocal reverence, and utter respect - this time by John Paul White, formerly of the duo The Civil Wars.

Besides “Paradise,” Oh Boy Records released two other tracks prior to the album release – “I Remember Everything” by Brandi Carlile and “Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You” by Tyler Childers.

Carlile, the 2021 Americana Artist of the Year, performed Prine’s last-ever recorded song at the Americana Music Association’s annual Awards where it was named Song of the Year. She too does Prine proud.

Perhaps the most inventive track among the compilation is Childers’ “Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You.” The piano-led, honky-tonk interpretation is simply magical and you can almost see Childers smiling his way through one of Prine most lyrical gems: You left my heart a vacant lot/I’ll fill it with another shot/And yes, I guess they oughta name a drink after you

It is a long-established fact that the strength of a songwriter can be measured by the ability of others to interpret his/her songs. Prine passes with flying colours! Bring on Vol 3.

(Proceeds from the album will benefit 12 different non-profit organisations – one for each featured artist.)

Paul Cutler


Crossroads – Americana Music Association


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