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John Prine, Vox Populi
Like Kooser, Prine is a cancer survivor. Late in 1997, a carcinoma was found on the right side of Prine's neck. The surgery to remove it was not a concern -- the growth wasn't near Prine's vocal cords -- but the six weeks of radiation therapy that followed was. Prine, whose gruff, sandpaper baritone was always an instrument of truth, not beauty, gets a kick out of recalling the concerned radiologist who wanted to shield the vocal cords during treatment -- until Prine asked, "Have you ever heard me sing?"
Thirty years of smoking a pack a day obviously hadn't helped. Giving up that habit affected Prine's voice as much as surgery and radiation. His voice coarsened a bit and dropped an octave, closer to his conversational level. The surgery involved removing a small portion of Prine's neck and refashioning his bite, and he's put on some weight. With his brushy mustache, the 58-year-old Prine looks like a friendly Joseph Stalin -- except for standup shocks of hair that may be the most electric thing about him.
"My voice lost its strength for about a year after everything was over with," Prine recalls. "I could pick up a guitar and talk, but I had no power to sing. Little by little it came back. When my voice dropped, I had to drop the key considerably, to where I've got to carry another guitar that's tuned down two steps. . . . I'm limited in my chords!"
Typically for Prine, he's found the upside of that change.
"To me, it's like hearing someone else doing a really good rendition of one of my songs, to where it reawakens me to the song -- except it's me doing it, so it's double fun for me. I'm very comfortable for the first time with my singing voice."
A month after his Library of Congress appearance, Prine released "Fair & Square," his first collection of new songs in nearly a decade. It offers typically wry Prine observations in "Taking a Walk," "Crazy as a Loon" and "I Hate It When That Happens to Me" and the politically charged "Some Humans Ain't Human." But songs like "Glory of True Love" and "She Is My Everything" reflect positive changes in Prine's personal life. They include marriage (Prine's third) to Fiona Whelan, whom he met while touring in Ireland. They have two sons, Jack and Tom (10 and 9, born 10 months apart, what Prine jokingly calls "Irish twins") as well as Fiona's 23-year-old, Jody, who's been with Prine since he was 11.
"I didn't have this family 10 years ago when I was writing [the last new song collection] 'The Missing Years,' " Prine says. "It's totally changed my life."
Prine grew up in Maywood, where his father moved the family to escape the coal mines of Kentucky, though they returned each summer to Paradise to stay with relatives. (Years later, when Paradise existed only in song, a neighboring town renamed a street John Prine Avenue.) Prine's father, a tool and die maker who became president of a steelworkers local, was "a huge country fan, so we had plenty of country music around the house, though I was later exposed to rock-and-roll and R&B and blues around Chicago," Prine notes.
The new album's inclusion of a Carter Family song, "Bear Creek Blues," is a homage to the early influence of older brother Dave Prine, who played fiddle in local old-timey bands and enlisted his sibling at 14 to play rhythm guitar, giving him albums by the Carters, Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt. It was from these that Prine learned the basic guitar underpinnings -- simple chords and unfussy finger picking -- that shape his writing even now.
"Entirely, because that's all I know," Prine admits with a chuckle. "I always claim that if somebody else had taught me how to play guitar, and taught me one Chuck Berry song, I would have written a few more rock-and-roll songs than I ever did. . . . I'd probably have to learn from scratch to play guitar any different, but I think my shortcomings or mistakes have all become a style and strength over the years."
Soon, Prine became a regular on the Chicago circuit, with other local songwriters championing him to visitors -- including, one night, Kristofferson, the man who wrote "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night."
"It was incredible," Kristofferson recalls. "John was singing some of the best songs I've ever heard, and they still are the best songs I've ever heard. . . . The best of his songs are timeless. They're like folk music, completely original and unpredictable."