The Big Old Goofy World of John Prine [yes, he's still with us]
October 25, 2016 8:13 AM   Subscribe

It’s been a monumental month for one of Nashville’s most masterful songwriters, John Prine. As October rolled in, Prine’s latest album of duets with women, “For Better, or Worse,” was released and debuted at #2 on the Country Charts, making it the highest-charting album of his career. A week later, he celebrated his 70th birthday with a series of star-studded, sold-out shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium...

...To mark this milestone, The Bitter Southerner talked to people — friends, family members, collaborators — who adore Prine as much as we do. We’re proud to present an oral history, of sorts, of one of the wittiest, sweetest, most talented musicians alive.

John Prine recently on the WTF podcast.

John Prine and Jason Isbell are the Presidential Ticket America Needs:

Legendary singer-songwriter John Prine’s label Oh Boy Records is selling a shirt that advertises Prine as a presidential candidate. Fellow Americana talent and friend Jason Isbell has also been tapped for the Vice President position. So what’s their campaign slogan? “Blow up your TV,” the timely line from Prine’s classic tune, “Spanish Pipedream.”

Audio review: John Prine
posted by mandolin conspiracy (38 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Fish & Whistle

Since they're askin'...

That song went straight into my brain and has stayed forever.
posted by chavenet at 8:19 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is really delightful, thank you!

Jason Wilber: His favorite post-show meal used to be meatloaf. Then, for a long time, it was shredded beef enchiladas, and then lately it’s been sushi. He’ll got a tuna roll or some sashimi. And then there’s always a pepperoni pizza as his backup. That way, if the main course is bad he can just eat pizza. Smart. The voice of experience.

Amanda Shires: The other night, we were trying to determine if the meatloaf after the show was really meatloaf, or if it was better to go with pizza. If we’re anywhere that’s not landlocked, John’s always trying to find the best oysters and clam chowder.

Holly Williams: It’s funny, John has the most un-rock and roll tour. The first few nights I toured with John, the manager told me that he loves birthday cake, and no matter what city we were in, we get birthday cake after the show, and I’m thinking, they must be kidding. I mean, I love birthday cake and all, but on the first night literally we left the stage, went to the back room and then we all sat around and ate cake and told stories. At the time, I was pregnant, so no sex, drugs and rock and roll for me, so I was like, “I’m pregnant and eating birthday cake and I’ll be in bed by 10.” It was awesome.

Amanda Shires: John has this drink that he likes. It’s called a Handsome Johnny, and it’s Smirnoff Vodka with diet ginger ale. He doesn’t drink much, but that’s the drink that he makes the bartender make him. I don’t know if you’ve tasted one, but you should taste it. It is really not a good drink, but because John Prine likes it, I’ve somehow managed to develop a taste for it.

posted by neroli at 8:22 AM on October 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

Thank you! Prine's "In Spite of Ourselves" played at my wedding reception, and I've never regretted it.

And I love this one: "Spanish Pipedream." Election stress? Blow up your TV, throw away your paper...
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:23 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thank you for the 'yes, he's still with us' right up at the top.
posted by Killick at 8:28 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Not quite sure about why the world seems to have come around on John Prine of late, but it's fantastic.

His first record is still one of the all time "This is a first record?!?!"
posted by selfnoise at 8:35 AM on October 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

I love me some John Prine, but I can't think of him without thinking of his dear departed friend Steve Goodman, one of the greatest songwriters ever and a fine and gentle soul; they played a whole lot together in their early days in the 1970s, and John always talks of him with fondness. I've been thinking a lot of Steve lately because his beloved Cubs finally won the pennant, a feat they never accomplished in his lifetime. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who listened to his "Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request" a whole lot over the past week.
posted by koeselitz at 8:36 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

(And I always love the story John Prine tells of how he got discovered, a story that illustrates something about what kind of person Steve Goodman was: Steve way playing a club one night when an agent came up to him excitedly and said he loved his work, and wanted to sign him immediately. Steve's response: "well, if you think I'm good, just wait until you hear my friend John Prine! He's the one you should be signing...")
posted by koeselitz at 8:38 AM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thank you for the 'yes, he's still with us' right up at the top.

It's been that kind of year. :(

I know Marc Maron's not everyone's cup of tea, but the WTF interview is pretty good - and Prine sounded like he's doing alright these days. It was heartening to hear.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:43 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you! Prine's "In Spite of Ourselves" yt played at my wedding reception, and I've never regretted it.

It's on my eternal playlist. It's probably the best love song ever. Iris Dement is a treasure.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:47 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thank you for the " [yes, he's still with us]" in the title. Don't think that I want to deal with a universe without John Prine in it quite yet.
posted by octothorpe at 8:50 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

OK. I've been trying to write something to explain how much John Prine has meant to me and I'm failing miserably. I first heard him in '78 or '79, when I was 13 or so and until then, I had no idea that a songwriter could treat both humor and tragedy with such honesty. For my money, he is still one of the most efficient songwriters around - no one conveys more with fewer words ("Heat lightning burnt the sky like alcohol"). He opened the door to folk music for me and that changed my world musically and beyond. Through him I found The Kingston Trio and The Weavers and Pete Seeger and so much more. The songs they sang made me aware of a side of history that they weren't teaching in school and changed the way I saw, and see, the world.

Anyway, I'm gave up on trying to explain it and decided to post my favorite John Prine song. But, I love too many to pick one so:
Sam Stone - the song that made me realize music can be about more than sound.
Mexican Home - the concise poetry of this song still blows me away.
Donald and Lydia - I've always been struck by the mixture of humor and pathos in this song and amazed by how much he captures in the opening line.

Anyway, if anyone runs into John, tell him I said "thanks".
posted by qldaddy at 9:12 AM on October 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

Saw him live a couple years ago. Got a free ticket. Wasn't a huge fan. After the show, I'm a huge fan. Thanks for this.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 9:37 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I lost a lot of my favorite CDs when my car was stolen several years ago, among them was his 2-disc greatest hits. Thanks for the reminder to get a replacement.
posted by sapere aude at 9:43 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

John Prine is one of the greatest songwriters to ever walk the earth. 'All The Best,' may be the best song about a breakup ever.
posted by jonmc at 9:50 AM on October 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I really wish I could have seen one of those Prine/Isbell shows. That would have been awesome.

Someone really needs to get around to making an FPP about Jason Isbell sometime soon, too.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:52 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Goddammit, you had me panicked for a second. Every post I see that involves an aging musical hero of mine worries me for a second anymore.
posted by jferg at 10:05 AM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Whenever I see some cheap display of patriotism I think to myself "someone should tell you that your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore." Back in the seventies Dear Abby was one of the songs we would sing at summer camp. It was some years later when I discovered John Prine and it blew my mind to find out it was his song we'd been singing all those years ago. Had a similar reaction when I learned Please Don't Bury Me was his song, too. He is one of those writers who has a knack for writing songs that immediately sound like they are traditional tunes that have been around forever.

Loved the Bitter Southerner article; would love to see them give a similar treatment to another John I'm a fan of, John Hiatt.
posted by TedW at 10:06 AM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

John Prine and Jason Isbell are the Presidential Ticket America Needs

Fuck yeah. And Sturgill Simpson as Secretary of State.
posted by not_the_water at 10:09 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Early classics:
I recall him telling this story about his late 1970s album titles:

After changing record labels, he released the album Bruised Orange in 1978. Some over-enthusiastic record company rep(s) sent Prine crates of fresh oranges as a corporate thank you gift. Lots of them, apparently.

Figuring that was how Asylum did things, he decided to aim a little higher with the next album, so he called it Pink Cadillac. No dice.

So for the next album he tried for something a bit more practical and named that one Storm Windows. I have no information on the result.
posted by Herodios at 10:15 AM on October 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

I got tickets to see him live - I thought, based on the numbering, we must be in the very back - and it turned out we were in the front row! It was perfect. Sincere but not overearnest, witty but not cruel, sweet but not sugary, plain but not dull, sad but not mawkish, that's John Prine - our most underrated singer-songwriter. I put him alongside Springsteen.

and every time I hear how "oh, musical geniuses are just different, can't hold them to standards of regular person behavior like decency and kindness," I think of John Prine.
posted by sallybrown at 10:17 AM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

How lucky can one man get?
posted by hal9k at 10:18 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

OK. I've been trying to write something to explain how much John Prine has meant to me and I'm failing miserably.

The only thing I can say to people who don't know him is that he is America's greatest song writer, ever. Period. Yes, I am very familiar with Guthrie and Dylan.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:46 AM on October 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

John Prine is a Certified National Fucking Treasure (CNFT) and deserves nothing but accolades. If you liked the videos that MonkeyToes posted, get yourself a copy of the Live From Sessions at West 54th DVD. There's a crappy lo-rez version on Youtube that will give you the idea.

That's also the performance that made me fall in love with Iris Dement.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:56 AM on October 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

A few summers ago, I had the chance to see Darrell Scott and Tim O'Brien perform Prine's "Paradise." Here are all three, doing the song together. Great stuff.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:20 PM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

A few summers ago, I had the chance to see Darrell Scott and Tim O'Brien perform Prine's "Paradise." Here are all three, doing the song together . Great stuff.

Oh, wow, thanks so much for that! I'm a gonzo Tim O'Brien fan, and I like the collaborations he's done with Scott, so this is, well, wow.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:27 PM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm only familiar with one of his songs. But it's a good one, Lake Marie.
posted by night_train at 1:33 PM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

He played a relatively small club in Houston, lo those long years ago, late 70s, maybe early 80s, not sure -- everybody in the place sang along with him on most all of his songs, it was a spectacular experience.

Maybe midway through he's introducing the members of his band -- "And this here is "insert name", from "insert hometown"; and this is "insert name" from "insert hometown", etc and etc. And then he says "And I'm John Prine, and this is fun!" He owned us, every one.

Maybe four years ago he played here in Austin, yet again we're all in love with him, someone in the crowd yelled "We love you, John!" and everybody yelled out in assent. It was perfect, it was just right.

He may not have gotten the fame that fate has given some other musicians, but he's got all of our love.

I love John Prine.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:55 PM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think I got deleted for saying it last time, maybe (?), but yes, "[yes, he's still with us]" is awfully nice.

I saw Prine in concert like, 20 years ago or so, and even though he's been touring basically forever, he's always seemed more like a guitarist's guitarist to me. Everyone sings his songs, even if they couldn't pick him out in a crowd.
posted by rokusan at 3:14 PM on October 25, 2016

More like a songwriter's songwriter. His guitar technique is workman-like but his songs are brilliantly melodic and spare.

My favorite anecdote: he's in the radiation oncology room for his first throat cancer treatment and the tech tells him that he's being really careful with aiming the beam so it won't hurt his voice. Prine replies, "Have you heard me sing?"
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:26 PM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just give me one thing that I can hold on to: Bonnie Raitt and John Prine, "Angel From Montgomery."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:23 PM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

My favorite is this live version of "That's the Way That the World Goes Round" -
"I was sitting there, playing in this club in San Francisco and this girl come up to the stage, so I leaned over and asked her what I could do for her, and she said, uh, she said, would you please sing that song of yours about the happy enchilada? And I said, geez, I haven't ever written a song about any kind of enchilada, let along a happy enchilada. I said, you might have me confused with somebody else. She said, no, you wrote a song about a happy enchilada. And I sez, well, how's it go? And she sez, 'it's a happy enchilada and you think you're gonna drown!'"
posted by sallybrown at 6:38 PM on October 25, 2016

Christmas in Prison. Brings the tears every time.
posted by Miko at 7:34 PM on October 25, 2016

Hello In There breaks my heart every time I hear it.

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
But old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say
Hello in there

[Edited to remove a reference to WTF podcast now that I see it's called out in the post.]
posted by HillbillyInBC at 7:43 PM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, "Hello In There" is the big John Prine song for me too. The aching loneliness of growing old. And he was 18 or 21 or something when he wrote it. I love this guy. (Another song filled with characters who have names. I had never noticed that before about his songs.)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:31 PM on October 25, 2016

Hello In There. It makes me cry, I'm crying as I type this in. I'm 61, I still careen around as best I can, but I have three friends who have become old. These are people I've known for decades, they're my age or younger, but health problems for two of the three and all of them sortof just broken by life, and they've turned old. It's hard for me to talk to them sometimes, I don't say much about my still careening because it'd be unfair maybe, I've been graced with great health regardless I've had calamities of course.

Anyways, the song. Prine was so young, but he nailed it, the song caught me deep the first time I heard it (on an 8 track tape -- gawd) and it's caught me every time since, maybe moreso as the years tick by, and I see more..............
posted by dancestoblue at 11:00 PM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Blaze Foley -- "Clay Pigeons"
Studio version of Prine covering Blaze Foley's "Clay Pigeons"
Somewhere I've got a great live Prine cover of this, didn't find any really good live covers on youtube but the studio version is nice also. So much life in this song, Prine does it justice.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:51 AM on October 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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