"In Spite of Ourselves," the new album by John Prine, is proof positive that you can still make an album full of old-fashioned, unpolished country music duets. Of course, it helps if you happen to run your own record label.
Prine does, and so he's free to indulge himself in this weathered collection of classic and obscure country tunes, singing alongside such Nashville veterans as Connie Smith and Melba Montgomery and such relative newcomers as Patty Loveless and Trisha Yearwood. Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris and Irish vocalist Dolores Keane are also among Prine's duet partners on "In Spite of Ourselves" (Oh Boy!), and though he's certainly no one's idea of a perfect harmony mate, his parched baritone and backwoods delivery are responsible for much of the album's unvarnished charm.
The songs, though, are what really make this album special and surprisingly affecting. Prine composed only one tune--the album's terrific title track, a lovers' slugfest with a happy ending--but several songs here mirror his perspective on modern life and love--or, as is more often the case, love gone bad or sad.
There are honky-tonk tales of infidelity (the Moe Bandy hit "It's a Cheatin' Situation" and the Webb Pierce gem "Back Street Affair"), along with twangy remembrances of rural romance (the George Jones and Tammy Wynette classic "(We're Not) The Jet Set)," small-town gossips (the Carl Smith song "Loose Talk") and big-city dreams ("Milwaukee Here I Come"). While some of these songs have been staples of Prine's concerts, most are just tunes that he always wanted to record. That he got a chance to do so in this uncluttered setting, with the likes of Smith, Montgomery, Harris and DeMent, make the results all the more enjoyable and refreshing.
Prine and DeMent appear at the Birchmere Sept. 28 and 29 and Oct. 1 and 2. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8177.)
'Gentleman of Leisure'
Jesse Winchester has surfaced with a new album that reasserts his cool mastery of modern R&B tunes and contemporary pop-folk ballads. Longtime fans will surely find plenty of familiar pleasures listening to "Gentleman of Leisure" (Sugar Hill), whether it's the Southern soul grooves that underscore the album's opening tracks, "Club Manhattan" and "Sweet Little Shoe," or the gentle, haunting tone that lifts the inspirational ballad "That's What Makes You Strong" and the love song "No Pride at All" far above the ordinary. Both "No Pride at All" and "Just Cause I'm in Love With You" sound as if they were composed for Roy Orbison, and though Winchester lacks Orbison's dramatic delivery and range, he conjures enough emotional tension to make every word ring true.
No Winchester album would be complete, though, without a little whimsical wordplay or an amusing vignette or two. "You Tickle Me" and "Just Like New," a homage to a rockabilly cat's refurbished Cadillac, fill the bill quite nicely. Add a terrific cast of musicians, including Memphis guitar legend Steve Cropper and Dobro ace Jerry Douglas--and you have an album that ranks with Winchester's best.
Winchester performs Friday at the Birchmere.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8178.)
CAPTION: John Prine, top, and Jesse Winchester showcase their latest releases this month at the Birchmere.