John Prine remains a singular voice in American music. It’s fitting that his biography fits with the mythology of the nation as well. He grew up in Chicago in the post-World War II era, joined the Army and came home, taking a job as postman. He delivered mail by day and, in his telling, often wrote songs in his head, trying them out on his guitar when he returned home. Along with writers such as Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc and others, he became a central figure of the Chicago folk revival.
He moved onto the national stage after Kris Kristofferson “discovered” Prine there one night. The friendship led to a deal with Atlantic Records and, in 1971, a self-titled solo album. The songs collected there have left an indelible mark on songwriting and folk music. With a sometimes weary always, everyman voice Prine chronicled how strip mining devastated a small Kentucky town (“Paradise”), patriotism at its most hypocritical (“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”) and the melancholy of everyday life (“Angel From Montgomery”).
Equally enduring was the track “Sam Stone,” about a military vet addicted to heroin. There, as in other songs that would come, Prine revealed a gift for transforming common vernacular into revelation. In songs such as “Souvenirs” and “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” he continued painting portraits of a vanishing way of life that was not as much sentimental as it was true.
Whereas some of his peers would reach an early peak in the 1970s, Prine continued to make exhilarating releases in the coming decades. The Missing Years, which appeared in 1991, broke a five year hiatus from the studio and included the title piece, which speculated upon 18 years unaccounted for in the life of Jesus, as well as one co-write with John Mellencamp and a guest appearance from Tom Petty. Four years later, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings appeared and received a Grammy nomination; it also demonstrated that Prine’s best writing still lay ahead of him: “Lake Marie,” “Quit Hollerin’ at Me” and “Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody” were dressed in contemporary clothing but did nothing to betray their author’s roots.
Prine has twice battled cancer, the first time in the late 1990s. As he recovered, he drew up a list of songs he wanted to cover and emerged, in 1999, with In Spite of Ourselves, which featured duet with Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris and, perhaps most notably, Iris Dement. She guested on the album’s sole Prine-penned tuned, the titular cut, written for the film Daddy and Them, which starred Billy Bob Thornton, Andy Griffith and the former singing mailman himself.
Though his popularity never truly declined, a new generation embraced Prine’s music come the new century as he embraced a new generation of fellow songwriters, including Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Todd Snider and, most recently, John Moreland. Moreland, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, opens for Prine at Salina’s Stiefel Theatre on Friday, September 29.
Prine recently agreed to answer several questions via email about his life and work.
This year, you released September ’78, which captured you back in Chicago that year, right between the Bruised Orange and Pink Cadillac Records. One might say that you were between two periods in your development. You even had a full band. Did you feel it was necessary to shake things up at that point?
I really enjoyed having a band with me. My band from Chicago were all great guys and really great musicians too. When I went to Memphis to work with Sam, Knox and Jerry Phillips, it was definitely an opportunity to see what we could do as a band. And of course Knox and Jerry and Sam were a huge influence on how the band sounded and how we recorded the songs. It wasn’t that I needed to be this or that as a performer. It was more about what the songs needed and trusting the production. We had a lot of fun in the studio, short days and long nights, trying out different sounds and ways of recording.
There have been a number of records you’ve done that I see as being “turning point” releases. In Spite of Ourselves was one. That record was a revelation when it came along for a number of reasons, including that you chose a body of tunes that reminded us that sometimes simple songs and sentiments are often the best. Did you have a sense that you were onto something special with that one?
When the idea came around to make a duet record I made a list of all my favorite female singers at that boy and gave it to my record company (Oh Boy Records). Everyone we asked to sing agreed! I had a list of songs and matched them to the singers and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
The title song is an example of your particular brand of humor. Was that song a significant one for you, as a writer?
I wrote that for Daddy and Them, I had a part in the movie too. I had no idea that it would become one of my most popular songs. The only girl I could imagine singing it with was Iris Dement. She is my all-time favorite duet partner.
You revisited the approach you took on In Spite of Ourselves with For Better, Or Worse. Had you always planned on making a second record or did it kind of creep up on you?
When Oh Boy wanted to issue the record on vinyl, I went into the studio to record and extra three or four tracks we needed to fit on two sides of vinyl. I really enjoyed working on it with my buddy Jim Rooney and before I knew it, I was persuaded to keep going! I made a list of my more recent favorite girl singers and everyone we called wanted to sing a duet with me! I’m really happy with the way it worked out. I think my record company is too!
You started off, like most do, in small rooms and I’ve noticed that you have this ability to make a packed theater feel like a small room with a group of close friends.
The audiences have definitely grown but I know that many of them are fans I’ve had for 40-plus years. I do have a connection to them and now they bring their children or grandchildren. I’m really lucky to have an audience to have grown with over the last 40-plus years. They are loyal and seem to want to hear all those old songs again.
I was nervous in the beginning so I just always thought about the guy or girl who had worked all week and spent their money to buy a ticket to my show. It’s really important to me that I give them the very best show I can every night.
You have songs that are over 40 years which are still relevant and still resonate with listeners. No one can plan that but I imagine some writers hope that their songs have those kinds of legs. Do you have any thoughts on the longevity of your music?
I really had no idea that Sam Stone would come from Vietnam and then go on to fight war after war. I dedicate the song every night to veterans from all wars. I thought maybe we could have learned something by now.
You’ve been supportive of younger writers over the years, whether Todd Snider and Iris Dement or, more recently, Jason Isbell and John Moreland. That kind of support isn’t always easy to come by. Did you feel a sense of responsibility to give younger/up-and-coming writers a nod?
The only support I can give is to say, ‘I like your songs, I like what you do and how you’re doing it.’ They have to deliver the goods. But I know what it means to a young person’s career. Kris Kristofferson did it for me. The likes of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Amanda Shires sure don’t need me to help them but I sure have enjoyed getting to know them and have them travel with us and sing with me. I’m looking forward to having John Moreland out with us. It’s my first chance to work with him. I think my fans will enjoy him too.