- 07 Apr 21
On this day in 2020, John Prine died of Covid-19 complications, aged 73. To mark the first anniversary of his death, we're revisiting Paul Charles' special tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter.
If there weren’t a music business, some people would still make music and write songs. The absence of recording contracts, or publishing contracts, or the unavailability of a streaming platform, really wouldn’t matter to them. No, they would continue to embrace the honourable art of making music and creating songs because their existence, the essence of their lives even, depended on it.
John Prine was one such true musician.
Like a lot of the artists I have been lucky enough to have worked with, he found his way into the music world via an unconventional road map.
He was a US mailman, delivering letters on his well-trodden route in Chicago. Once he’d learnt the route, he had nothing else to do other than deliver his letters and daydream his days away. He did this for six years before he picked up the courage to hop up on-stage at an open-mic night in the Fifth Peg Folk Club in Chicago. That night, he performed one song. The reaction was enough for the club owner to book him for the following three Thursday nights.
Upon discovering that he was expected to play a 60-minute set, John spent the remainder of the week writing enough songs to fill out the required time. The first week 12 people turned up. The ticket price was 50cents and John was paid half of this. After the second night, he figured the same man he’d noticed there on both nights would be back again on the third, once more sitting in the front row – and he’d probably be annoyed if the fledging singer-songwriter did exactly the same set again. So, in order to add some variety to his performance, in the taxi on the way to the club on the third night, he wrote a new song, ‘Sam Stone’.
Flexing his muscles as a performer, John Prine started to play around Chicago’s folk circuit and quite soon he was earning a lot more from performing than he was from being a mailman. He happily hung up his US mailbag. It was around this time he met up with another young singer-songwriter, Steve Goodman, and they became good buddies and later best friends. Kris Kristofferson happened upon the talent of Steve Goodman and booked him as the opening act on a three-night run he had lined-up in Chicago. After one of Kris’s shows, Goodman browbeat Kristofferson into travelling across to the other side of town to see his mate, John Prine – “the real deal,” he insisted – performing.
Kris was so taken by John Prine’s songs that he had him sing them again for him in the dressing room afterwards. This meeting (eventually) led to John being signed to a recording contract with Atlantic Records.
LIKING YOUR OWN SONGS
John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III and Steve Goodman were the first artists – but certainly not the last – to be unimaginatively marketed by their record companies as “the next Bob Dylan.” Bob Dylan himself became a fan of John, citing him as one of his favourite songwriters. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” he said. “Midwestern mindtrips to the Nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.” Dylan played harmonica on stage when John made his debut in New York.
From his first album John Prine set up shop the way he meant to continue for the rest of his career. He liked the recording studio, but he never wanted to live there or have one in his house. He wanted to keep visits to the studio rare and something special. His priority was always to follow the song. He endeavoured to record versions of his songs that he could reproduce live. The stage, and not the recording studio, was his priority.
While he was in the studio, however, he operated to the rule that the song was the boss. “I don’t know where a song comes from,” he claimed, “but when I get a pretty one, I don’t want anyone messing it up.”
His trademark was spinning a story within a song lyric. His lyrics were always intelligent, funny but never highbrow and, just like Mark Twain, there was never a wasted word.
He confessed he came from the Chuck Berry school of song-writing, where every single syllable of your lyric had to have a note. He thought the bridge was a crucial part of a song and he loved writing them. On his co-writes, he could always be relied upon to come up with the perfect bridge.
When John completed a song he was particularly proud of, he had a habit of keeping it under wraps for a few weeks. He said he just loved the feeling of walking around, knowing that no-one else in the world had heard the song in question yet. One such was ‘Jesus The Missing Years’, from the Grammy award-winning album, The Missing Years (1991). He said he kept that one under wraps for a couple of weeks. I just can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be walking around knowing you were the only person in the world to have heard that: it became a classic. I have always thought that 'Jesus The Missing Years' was a film begging to be made.
An important piece of advice John graciously offered songwriters was to make sure they liked the songs they wrote. He suggested that if the song in question became a big song or a hit, then you’d most likely be asked about it every day for the remainder of your life. You’d be expected to perform this song every time you appeared on stage. So, it helped a lot if you genuinely liked your own songs. He knew what he was talking about: he performed ‘Sam Stone’, ‘Hello In There’ and ‘Paradise’, three songs he wrote when he was 21 or 22 years of age, pretty much every time he appeared on stage. He liked them all and really enjoyed singing them.
His mentor, the legendary Jack Clements taught him to be “friends with the microphone.” The microphone is an artist’s vital link with their audience, so Clements encouraged John to get to know it, to understand how it worked and to master how best to use it to facilitate delivering his songs to the best effect. He did it every time.
OTHER PEOPLE’S JUNK
I found the always dapper John Prine to be a true gentleman and a delight to work with. He was a great storyteller on and off-stage and had many wonderful different spins on life. For instance, he believed that eras with bad pop music also produced bad cars and he felt a lot of modern vehicles would been so much better if our current pop music was hitting the mark. He was a big fan of the automobiles of the 1950s.
On the sleeve notes for his great friend Iris DeMent’s debut album, Infamous Angel (1992), John wrote: “And if pork chops could talk, they’d probably learn to sing one of her songs.” If we don’t know exactly what he means, it doesn’t really matter, because it sure sounds good, and if it sounds that good then he couldn’t be talking about music that would be anything less than amazing, which of course turned out to be the case. John was always very generous in his praise of other artists. One of the big secrets of the music world is that truly great artists are always big fans of other artists.
Although never tarnished by the chains of notoriety or fame that ruined so many others, John Prine achieved sales and critical praise to an extent that was coveted by many of his peers. He had, from the very beginning of his career, learned the secret of a long run: always keep some reserve in your tank and maintain a direct connection with your fans. He achieved the latter when, in 1984, he set up his own record label, Oh Boy Records, with his manager Al Bunetta. Oh Boy Records was one of the first true independent record labels and might even have been the first to use the crowd-funding system to produce albums.
It was not by accident that his latest album, The Tree of Forgiveness (2019), his first album in 13 years, was not only one of the best of his career, but was also acknowledged as such – and had the sales and the chart position to prove it. It reached No. 5 in Billboard’s hallowed top two hundred albums, his highest-ever USA chart position. ‘Lonesome Friends of Science’, one of the many perfect songs on the album, could just as easily, as in very easily, have nestled cosily on his his historic first album, John Prine (1971). He was that kind of artist: marvellously consistent throughout his career.
John Prine also wrote perfect songs for other singers to make their own. What I mean by that is that he had the ability to write songs which would be the perfect host to their guests. A good example is the way Joe Cocker managed to personalise and reinvent the song, 'With A Little Help From My Friends’, to the degree that – when you heard the title – you’d think first of Joe Cocker’s version, and not The Beatles’. No mean feat. In John Prine’s instance, I’m thinking of Nanci Griffith’s version of ‘The Speed of The Sound of Loneliness’. It was through Nanci’s version that I discovered the brilliance of this song. Then there was Bonnie Raitt’s treatment of ‘Angel From Montgomery’, which was one of her career-defining moments. Subsequently, didn’t Carly Simon only go and gift us her equally vital version.
In and out of song, John Prine had a turn of phrase which would always bring a smile to your face.
I’m thinking of lines like: “I can hear the train tracks /Through the laundry on the line” (‘Knocking On Your Screen’, from The Tree of Forgiveness 2019) That just takes you straight there: you’re right beside him in his story. Once again you have been effortlessly transported into the ultra-visual Prine-world.
Again from the new album: this time the song is called ‘The Other Side of Town’: “A clown puts his make-up on upside down / So he wears a smile even when he wears a frown."
Or there’s one from a beautiful early song, ‘Souvenirs’, from his second album Diamonds in the Rough (1972): “I hate graveyards and pawn shops/ For they always bring me tears.”
It turned out he actually liked pawn shops (he really loved to see other people’s junk), but he confessed that in his songwriting, sometimes the sound of the word was more important than the meaning. For the lyric of ‘Souvenirs’, he preferred the sound of the word “hate” over the words “like” or “love”. On top of which he felt “hate” sat much better with “graveyards”.
Some of his songs are just so friendly that the first time you hear them you think you’ve known them all your life. One of the perfect examples is 'That’s the Way the World Goes Down’ (from Bruised Orange 1978). Another is ‘In Spite of Ourselves', a perfect duet with Iris DeMent from the album of the same name (1999).
WONDERFUL UNCORRUPTED MUSIC
John Prine was a master storyteller. Some of his introductions to his songs while on-stage, or the stories he told off-stage about various characters, suggested he had a few great books in him as well as all those beautiful songs.
We did several tours with John over the years, starting with a concert at The National Stadium Dublin on 24 October 1981. John’s show was part of an incredible series of concerts we were doing in the Stadium around that time with Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Carole King, Gerry Rafferty, BB King, Ry Cooder, JJ Cale, Loudon Wainwright III, Van Morrison and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Each and every one of them, for varying reasons, were classic concerts. Each and every one of those shows is now legendary.
There were few places on this planet better to be than in the National Stadium on The South Circular Road, in Dublin, when John Prine – or indeed any of the above-mentioned artists – were appearing there. For as long as I can remember, he was always very popular in Ireland, where the audiences embraced all of the original Americana artists way before the rest of Europe did.
Last time I met John was when I bumped into him and his wife Fiona in the lobby of the Westbury Hotel in Dublin a few years ago. I hadn’t seen him for ages. He did like a chat, though, and pretty soon we were catching up over a cup of tea and debating the quality of the scones.
I remember how beautiful his concerts were. It’s always rewarding to witness an artist who enjoys being on the stage as much as John Prine clearly did. That is so infectious. His concerts were always the perfect evening of songs and storytelling. He was very generous with the length of his sets. Yet the time he was on stage seemed to flow past so quickly. Luckily, the memories of the show gave you a glorious afterglow to tune back into, as often as you chose.
After the shows we’d inevitably have to send out to fetch John a fish and chip supper from one of the local chippies. Following one very successful concert in the Royal Festival Hall, London, and while everyone else was dining in the posh area with white napkins and legit cutlery, I found John in his dressing room, sitting on the floor with his fish and chips spread out on the newspaper wrapping in front of him, tucking in, finger style. I believe he even travelled with his own salt and vinegar. He definitely always travelled with a tube of mustard. Oh, the comforts of life on the road.
But that’ll be my lasting image of John Prine, turning on a sold-out venue to the magic of his wonderful uncorrupted music and then celebrating afterwards by tucking into his fish and chip supper.
• Paul Charles is a partner in the Asgard Agency, who book some of the most important artists in contemporary folk and rock music. He is also a successful novelist and writer with 21 novels to his credit. His latest, Departing Shadows (2019) is the eleventh in the Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy series.