Folk singer John Prine first attracted attention in the early '70s for the mordant miniatures he wrote, not for his nicotine-induced rasp. His singing voice hasn't exactly honeyed over the years. If anything, it's deepened, especially after he underwent radiation for squamous-cell carcinoma 18 months ago.
But Prine's new album, "In Spite of Ourselves" (Oh Boy), focuses on his singing: All but one of its 17 tracks are versions of honky-tonk classics written and definitively recorded by others. So with this album, Prine risks being compared to such singer's singers as George Jones, Webb Pierce and Jim Reeves. And by performing chestnuts like "Loose Talk" and "When Two Worlds Collide" as male-female duets, he also pits his wavering pitch against the bell-like timbres of Connie Smith, Trisha Yearwood and a handful of other women considered among the finest singers in country and folk circles today.
Surprisingly, Prine proves himself to be an affecting, if wry, interpreter of other writers' material. He also gives the male-female duet, a crucial but oft-maligned chapter in country music history, its due.
At times country music duets have been little more than hokey cross-promotional contrivances of record companies. Nevertheless, these musical dialogues have long held a unique appeal for country audiences.
"There's something about hearing a man and a woman singing together, and singing about such intimate stuff," says Iris DeMent, who partners with Prine on three songs on his new album and who will join him at the Birchmere for four shows this week. "You feel like you're getting inside of somebody's private lives a bit."
"It's very exiting when you put a guy and a girl together," adds Melba Montgomery, who sings with Prine on two of the album's tracks.
Montgomery should know. During the 1960s, she and George Jones recorded some of country's steamiest duets, among them the Montgomery-penned "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," a 1963 hit that she and Prine reprise on "In Spite of Ourselves."
"I'd been wanting to do an all-duet record for years," explains Prine, sitting in the offices of Oh Boy Records, the Nashville-based independent label that he started with his manager, Al Bunetta, in 1981. "I think the best duets are those where there's a dialogue back and forth and then the two singers go into a thing together."
Prine originally planned to mine country's mother lode of cheating songs for the album, but later abandoned the notion for fear that such a move might smack too much of novelty. "It would have become a joke--you know, a matter of finding the most outrageous songs that we could. So I thought, 'Well, you can't have cheating if you don't have loving. So you gotta have some songs where the boy and the girl dedicate themselves to each other before they start cheating.' "
Only half of the songs on "In Spite of Ourselves" were originally duets, but all of them, even those that Prine rearranged as such, explore the ups and downs of romance. Prine and Patty Loveless dust off "Back Street Affair," a cheating song that was a 1952 hit for Webb Pierce. Prine and Connie Smith take gossips to task on "Loose Talk," a chart-topper for honky-tonker Carl Smith in 1955. Prine and DeMent convey working-class pride in "(We're Not) the Jet Set," a best-selling duet for George Jones and Tammy Wynette, while Prine and Emmylou Harris lament unrequited love on "I Know One," a '60s hit for both Jim Reeves and Charley Pride. Rounding out the album's cast of female leads are Lucinda Williams, Irish folk singer Dolores Keane and Prine's wife, Fiona Prine, who, like Keane, is a native of Ireland.
Even vocalists with twice Prine's range and far better intonation might have found working with such a stellar cast daunting. But the only time that Prine says the weight of what he was doing sank in was when he and Montgomery cut "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds." Buddy Emmons, the steel guitarist who played on Jones and Montgomery's hit duet, was working the session as well.
"I knew Buddy from his playing with the Everly Brothers," says Prine. "But I didn't know that he had played on Melba and George's original. Melba walked in and she sees Buddy Emmons and turns around and says to me, 'You know, Buddy was there when George and I cut this.' So the band kicks in, 1-2-3-4, and I'm thinking, 'I'm singing George Jones's part with George Jones's duet partner and the steel player from the session. What am I doing here?' That's when it hit home for me."
Taking his cue from the producers who ruled Nashville's recording studios during the '50s and '60s, producer Jim Rooney insisted that Prine and his collaborators knock out the disc's tracks in workaday fashion. "Rooney, God bless him, he stood there and, after we did two takes of a song, he'd go, 'That's it,' " recalls Prine. "Everybody, even the musicians, would look at him funny. But he'd be like, 'What else are you gonna do to this?' "
"I think Trisha [Yearwood] came in at 5 o'clock and she was walking out the door with a cassette at quarter to 6," says Prine with a chuckle. "I worked the band up, she came in, and we sang it twice together, just with guitar. Then we went into the studio with the band and sang it two more times. That was it."
The album's warmth and presence--the music is acoustic-based country, with traces of bluegrass--bear out Rooney's method. But as Prine observes, this approach--combined with such a range of voices--could have been troublesome. "There was no way to tell how my voice and the girl I was singing with that day was gonna sound," he says. "Some voices don't blend. They just kinda rub against each other. I just heard Merle Haggard and Jewel the other night on the radio. It sounds like they're singing in two different worlds."
This isn't the case with the collaborations on "In Spite of Ourselves," as scruffy as they at times may be. Even the songs that paired Prine and Keane--singers who do live in two different worlds--proved felicitous. "All the girls over there in Ireland are well versed in American country music," says Prine. "Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline are like king and queen over there. You'll be sitting in a pub in the afternoon and out of nowhere some old guy'll rear his head back and sing [Reeves's] 'He'll Have to Go.' And everybody will just sit up and listen to him."
This sense that anyone can sing a song that was written or popularized by someone else is important to Prine, and may well be his album's subtext. It wasn't until recently, with the rise of the singer-songwriter movement of the '60s and '70s, that audiences started placing a premium on singers writing their own material. By recording an album of covers, Prine refocuses attention on the art of interpretive singing, a move that takes on additional meaning coming from a songwriter of his caliber.
The latter-day devaluation of singers who don't write their own songs "started with Bob Dylan," observes Prine. "People must have figured, 'Why would they let this guy sing with a voice like that if he didn't write his own songs?' The sad part about it is that it took the emphasis off people who didn't write songs and might not have been great singers, but who were great storytellers. It made them look like they were a little bit less. Even when I was coming up in the singer-songwriter ranks during the early '70s, I thought that people who were stylists and stuff shoulda still been up on the pedestal. I mean, it's fine to recognize people who write songs, but it kinda got out of hand, you know?"
As for the songs he covers on his album, Prine harbors no illusions about having improved upon the originals. He has, however, revived some enduring material while demonstrating a deeply intuitive grasp of country music.
"I felt like I was wearing the songs enough that if they didn't sound like they were completely my own, then they at least sounded different from the singer that first cut the record," he says. "The whole thing started as a pet project. I'm hoping that people will take it in that light."