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 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."
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."
We had an apartment in the city,
Me and Loretta liked living there.
Well, it'd been years since the kids had grown,
A life of their own,
Left us alone.
John and Linda live in Omaha
And Joe is somewhere on the road.
We lost Davy in the Korean War
And I still don't know what for
Don't matter anymore.
You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder ev'ry day.
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."
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 Amazon.com 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."