John Prine, Vox Populi

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 18, 2005

After two years of service in Germany as an Army draftee, John Prine came home in 1967 to a job as a letter carrier in Maywood, a working-class suburb of Chicago. He started making up songs to amuse himself as he walked his routes, but he didn't share them, even as he made the nighttime rounds of Chicago's burgeoning folk-music circuit.

Occasionally he'd hint to friends that he could do better than the performers onstage, and finally they dared Prine to prove it.

"At the end of 1970, I got up at an open-mike night at a club called the Fifth Peg," Prine recalls. "It was the first time I'd stepped on a stage."

Prine at the Library of Congress in March.
Prine at the Library of Congress in March. "John Prine has taken ordinary people and made monuments of them," Poet Laureate Ted Kooser said.
Prine sang three songs that night -- "Sam Stone," "Hello in There" and "Paradise." The first was a wrenching portrait of an addicted Vietnam vet. "Hello in There" poignantly captured the isolation of old people, while "Paradise" evoked the Prine family's old Kentucky home town of that name, bulldozed into oblivion by a coal company. They eventually became the three songs that, even today, are probably Prine's best known.

"He was unlike anybody I'd ever seen -- such a young kid, and yet he's writing songs like 'Hello in There,' " recalls fellow singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, who caught one of Prine's early performances and immediately helped get him a record contract. "I can't imagine myself at that age writing anything remotely that good."

"In retrospect," Prine says, "I didn't know just how original that stuff was or how lasting it would be. I thought it would last as long as it would last and then I would write other stuff."

John Prine did write "other stuff" -- 15 albums' worth over 35 years -- in a voice so original that the nation's poet laureate honored Prine in March in the Library of Congress's historic Coolidge Auditorium. It wasn't a concert, like the one Prine will perform at the Warner Theatre tonight, but a two-man conversation in story and song.

"I have been an admirer of John Prine since the early '70s, when his first album came out," says Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, who just a few weeks later was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Introducing Prine that night, Kooser compared him to Raymond Carver, whose stories about "ordinary people elevated them to almost heroic status. John Prine has taken ordinary people and made monuments of them, treating them with great respect and love. . . . He is a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people."

In the auditorium hovered the ghost of another genuine poet of the American people, one who also imbued his work with humor, homespun wisdom and empathy for the common man. Sixty-five years earlier to the month, 27-year-old Woody Guthrie sat on the same stage, making his first recordings and telling folklorist Alan Lomax tales of his Oklahoma boyhood, freight-train-riding hobo days and other events that shaped his writing. Highlights were heard soon after on Lomax's national radio show but the full recordings were not released until 1964.

By contrast, the Prine-Kooser encounter, all 83 minutes of it, was up on the library's Web site within days and remains its most popular Webcast, with almost 3,000 visits -- double the number of any of the library's 400 other Webcasts.

The encounter with Kooser proved downright familial. Kooser, who worked for an insurance company in Nebraska for 35 years, is one of the few poet laureates from the midsection of the country. Some of the praise that critics have sent Kooser's way -- "a haiku-like imagist" who "draws inspiration from the overlooked details of daily life" to "reveal the remarkable in what before was a merely ordinary world" -- could apply to Prine. The songwriter offhandedly supported the "haiku" connection, telling Kooser, "If you're looking for the big picture, sometimes you've got to get a really small frame."

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