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John Prine, Vox Populi

Cook, who co-wrote three songs on "Fair & Square," says of Prine: "He's so happy now. If John's lyrics lack anything these days, it's that he doesn't have that angst anymore. He's not pleading his case against the bad and wicked world of things gone wrong; he reflects life as he sees it, and his lyrics are happier now."

Another longtime fan, actor-director Billy Bob Thornton, also found a way to employ Prine at a time when he couldn't record or tour. After meeting a Prine pal in 1996, Thornton became a phone buddy and a year later invited the singer to visit him in Los Angeles. "We just hit it off immediately and hung out for about three days," Prine says. "I ended up going all over Hollywood with him -- it was like out of the movies."

For Prine, the greatest treat was lunch at a Chinese restaurant with one of his heroes, Andy Griffith. Prine calls Griffith "the consummate American. Like if Abraham Lincoln was alive and I saw him on TV, he'd be Andy Griffith. You know, Will Rogers or the character Andy Griffith plays on 'Mayberry' always appealed to me from the time I could crawl -- the folksy sort. Back then, even Walter Brennan always appealed to me. I'd known people in actual life who were like that. Except they weren't like movie people, they also had huge flaws and I could see those, too."

A year later, Thornton had written a script and secured financing for "Daddy and Them," a shot-in-Arkansas film starring Thornton, Prine as his Zen-like older brother imparting knowledge to family members at the times they most need it -- and Griffith as patriarch of what called "the most dysfunctional Southern family outside a Faulkner novel." (Filmed in 1998, the Miramax film wasn't released until 2001, going directly to DVD and video.)

"I think the best writers are those who write about their life experience and don't try to come up with something tricky," Thornton says. "That's what I love about John's songs -- they're just his observations on life. He has an amazing ability to write songs that are very emotional and can make you cry, and yet they're funnier than hell. John's about the best songwriter out there."

When "Daddy and Them" needed a closeout tune, Prine came up with one of his charmers, "In Spite of Ourselves." Sung as a duet with Iris DeMent, it echoes Thornton's constantly bickering relationship with Laura Dern in the film. The lovers have wildly disparate impressions of each other, but they're also very much in love: "In spite of ourselves / We'll end up sitting on a rainbow." It was the last new Prine original to surface before "Fair & Square," doing so on a 1999 collection of country duets with 10 different female partners, including Connie Smith, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris and his wife, Fiona. Prine's rough-edged voice works with all of them surprisingly well.

"I always thought it was because if anything would make that voice more comfortable or soften it, it would always be a woman's voice," Prine says with a chuckle.

"And now I'm more into playing live shows than I can remember," he says. Surviving cancer, crafting the new collection, getting back on the road, "it's just revitalized my interest in everything. The old songs, even though they have been good to me, now they're even better to me. I enjoy being able to sing those words."

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