A few years back, I ran across an acquaintance of mine who I'd almost forgotten about. Well, he's not really anyone I know personally, but John Prine has been around for most of my adult music listening life. He feels like one of those folk you'd see everyday on the bus on the way to work or school. Someone you'd not be friends with but whose company you come to accept as part of your life.
Then one day, you change jobs, or leave school, and you stop seeing them. Years later, if you happen to run into them, no matter what the circumstances, they provide a comfortable feeling of familiarity in a world which might not have turned out the way you expected it. So it is with John Prine and his music.
I had been listening to him all the way through the seventies, starting with his first release on Atlantic Records, John Prine, with the three songs he's still probably best known for: "Hello In There", "Illegal Smile", and "Sam Stone". Sweet Revenge has "Christmas In Prison" and "Dear Abby", and anything else he put out in those first ten or twelve years of his career were part of my musical landscape. There was even one memorable concert experience during that time before his voice started to deteriorate in the late eighties and early nineties.
It wasn't until 1996 that it was discovered John had a cancerous growth on the outside of his neck. The first doctor he went to told him not to worry about it and it was another year before anyone bothered with it. When it was discovered to be malignant, the doctors did their best to shield his larynx from the radiation to preserve his vocal chords, and he's come out the other side with his voice only slightly deeper.
When he was fully recovered from the treatments, John wrote an open letter to those who liked his music and songs, indicating he was ready to go back out on the road again and was feeling better than he had in a long time. The casual informality of his relationship with his fans, like that fellow passenger I talked about earlier, allowed him to say he hoped "… my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders" as much as he was to getting back to singing.
It was the Billy Bob Thornton movie, Daddy And Them (a movie worth watching just to hear Andy of Mayberry worry about being "corn holed"), that brought John Prine back into my life. Not only did he play one of Billy Bob's dysfunctional family members in the movie (he turns out to be the one willing to push the family to pull itself together), he provided a song for the movie, "In Spite Of Ourselves", a typically bittersweet love song about a couple similar to the one portrayed by Billy Bob and Laura Dern. Somehow or other, despite all the strikes against them, they are able to love each other and find a way of making it work.
It was the title song from an album John had done where he teamed up with a variety of women vocalists to record some of the classic duets of country music. After watching the movie, I rushed out and picked up a copy of it and rediscovered the joy of listening to John Prine all over again. The interesting thing was he had only written the one song, "In Spite Of Ourselves," of the fourteen tracks recorded, but he is so distinctive in style and presentation the songs became his.
Except perhaps for the duets with Iris Dement, the rest of the tracks were John Prine accompanied by someone else. That has nothing to do with him hogging the spotlight or lack of talent on the part of the other singer, but more to do with the strength of his personality. Just singing and playing guitar, he has presence people with twice his fame and notoriety can only dream of.
But to really appreciate John, you have to listen to him singing his own music and you need look no further than his most recent release on his Oh Boy Records label, Fair & Square, to experience that treat. In fact, if you're like me and still relatively new to coming back to listening to him, you'll be happy to know he seems to have obtained a comfort level absent for the longest time.
His songs are still matter of fact, with only some poetic flights of fancy to soften the edges of reality, but it's the unsentimental nature of his material that gives it such universal appeal. Songs like "Glory Of True Love" sings the praises and itemizes the merits of true love in terms we can all relate to, but without being simple or melodramatic. The tune is so up-tempo and cheerful, you wonder why everyone else makes such a meal out of the subject.
His biggest strength as a songwriter has always been his ability to make his listener empathize with his subject matter; the old couple in "Hello In There" is a perfect example. He shows he hasn't lost his touch on Fair & Square, with songs like "Long Monday" and its lyrics about the feelings of longing generated by missing someone you care for deeply, and "Some Humans Ain't Human" with its description of the ways in which people can be mean to each other and some folk, including Presidents of the United States, just don't get it.
Although his other recent works, Missing Years and Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, have been good discs (his duet on the latter with Marianne Faithful is not to be missed), the Grammy award winning Fair & Square from 2005 seems to have recaptured the intangible elements of his songwriting and performing that made his earlier work so memorable.
If that person you used to see on the bus all the time began to sing you his songs and managed to make it feel that, of all the people on the bus, he was singing only for you, it would go some ways in describing Prine at his best. Although Fair & Square wasn't written for you alone, it sure feels like it was, and there's no finer feeling than having a CD performed just for you.