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John Prine, Vox Populi

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say,

"Hello in there, hello."

Kristofferson took Prine to New York, where he auditioned for Atlantic Records and was signed within 24 hours. Prine's 1971 debut album included the three songs he'd first gone public with as well as "Illegal Smile," "Spanish Pipedream," "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," "Donald and Lydia" and "Angel From Montgomery," about the desolation of a dead-end marriage, told from a woman's point of view.

Bonnie Raitt, beginning her own career at the time, made "Angel From Montgomery" a cornerstone of her repertoire.

"It's still one of the most powerful songs I've ever heard," she says now. "It was so moving and so heartbreaking, especially for me as a young woman."

Raitt says she was immediately enthralled. "I loved John's story -- that he was a mailman, that he'd been in the Army, that he was obviously from the southern part of the country and moved up. He's salt of the Earth -- in the old days, Will Rogers was our John Prine."

Like musicians, critics took notice of Prine from the start, but acclaim never translated into stardom or sales. A certain amount of airplay in the less restricted days of FM radio, and his charming concert persona, helped Prine develop a loyal audience, but after five albums for Atlantic and three more for Asylum, he found himself without a label.

So in the early '80s, Prine and his longtime manager, Al Bunetta, started Oh Boy (named after the Buddy Holly song), one of the earliest artist-owned labels. The first Oh Boy album, "Aimless Love," came out in 1984; 1991's Grammy-winning "The Missing Years" featured appearances by Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen, who has called Prine "one of the great ones."

In 1980, Prine moved to Nashville, where one of the first people he met was songwriter Roger Cook, who'd penned "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" for the New Seekers (later a ubiquitous campaign for Coca-Cola). Prine ended up marrying an artist Cook was producing, and their wives became fast friends, "buzzing around Nashville, having a good time while John and I would be hanging around at midnight, waiting for them to come home," Cook says. "We'd sit around playing dominoes, and then we started writing songs together."

The first fruit of their solidarity came in 1983, when Don Williams had a No. 1 country hit with "Love Is on a Roll." Their other No. 1, "I Just Want to Dance With You" for George Strait, arrived providentially in 1998, just as Prine was facing huge hospital bills from his cancer treatment.

Prine says: "Roger is what I would call a professional songwriter. He's written a million songs and probably had 50,000 of them recorded -- he goes for odds. If we weren't friends, you probably couldn't get me to say, 'I want to write a song with this guy.' It's because we play poker together, play snooker, go fishing and we're both songwriters. When I write with him, he keeps everything in line. He knows they're not the kind of songs I write -- and he gets a kick out of that, puts something in to where it's actually going to have some sort of appeal to it."

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