December 15, 2018 8:00 PM
Two time Grammy-winner, singer-songwriter John Prine, is among the English language’s premier phrase-turners.
Forty-five years into a remarkable career that has drawn effusive praise from Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Roger Waters, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and others who would know, Prine is a smiling, shuffling force for good. He is a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member whose classic debut album, simply titled John Prine, is recognized as part of the Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame.
Prine’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, the Everly Brothers, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Norah Jones, George Strait, Miranda Lambert, and many others. But his genius isn’t found in his resume, it’s found in the brilliance of lyrics from his large catalog of songs.
“The prospect of new music from John Prine is something the veteran singer-songwriter’s fans haven’t gotten to look forward to in more than a decade. Prine’s most recent album of original material, Fair & Square, came out all the way back in 2005, so the mere mention of his as-yet-unnamed follow-up is noteworthy enough. “I don’t wanna just sit down and write a little couplet that’s kind of witty, or something. I’ve done that,” he told Rolling Stone last year. Instead, expect real firepower: He recorded with Dave Cobb at Nashville’s RCA Studio A and recruited guests like Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile.”
The highly-anticipated album, The Tree of Forgiveness, is Prine’s first collection of new material since 2005’s Grammy-winning Fair and Square. Rather than going out on a limb, Prine cultivated the themes that have brought international acclaim since the 1970s. For example, he can take a topic like loneliness and make it funny (“Knockin’ on Your Screen Door”) or heartbreaking (“Summers End”). Perfectly aligned with his quirkiest songs, “The Lonesome Friends of Science” makes its point through the characters he calls “those bastards in the white lab coats who experiment with mountain goats,” as well as the discredited planet Pluto and the towering Vulcan statue in Birmingham, Alabama.
Prine teamed with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb to record in Nashville’s historic Studio A, enlisting friends like Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and Amanda Shires to sing along. The songs are new, although some had waited to be finished for decades, like a co-write with Phil Spector called “God Only Knows.” Another incomplete song, “I Have Met My Love Today,” now celebrates the unexpected spark that leads to lifelong romance — with a dash of youthful innocence. The musical arrangements may be simpler than on past efforts, yet his unique ability to distill complex emotions into everyday language remains fully intact.
There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. – “Sam Stone”
If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire this old house would have burned down a long time ago. – “Angel from Montgomery”
Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see, That’s why last night and this morning always look the same to me. – “Souvenirs”
The whole thing started early. In 1970, Prine was playing a Chicago club called the Fifth Peg when a young reporter named Roger Ebert walked in, listened and understood.
“You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Prine’s quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday,” Ebert wrote.
Soon, Kris Kristofferson walked into a gig at the same bar, encouraged by Prine’s friend and comrade, Steve Goodman. Prine thought he was done playing that night, but Kristofferson took a chair from off the top of a table and asked to hear some of his songs. The resulting all-night session left Kristofferson muttering, “He’s so good, we’re gonna have to break his fingers,” but instead of breaking his fingers he served as a megaphone to the world for Prine, who soon garnered a record deal and released the self-titled album that came out in 1971.
“I bought John Prine’s first album on LP when it was released,” said United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, in 2005. “I played it as soon as I got home and noticed at once that here was a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people… He’s taken ordinary people and made monuments of them, treating them with great respect and love.”
Roger Waters, part of art rock band Pink Floyd, proclaims that Prine, “lives on that plane with Neil Young and Lennon.”
Bob Dylan ponders songs like “Sam Stone” and “Donald and Lydia” and says, “nobody like Prine could write like that.”
Indeed, Prine’s songs are singular and atypical enough to remove themselves from any notion of competition. They stand alone, yet they pal around with the masses.
Prine is an Americana Music Honors & Awards winner for lifetime achievement in songwriting and 2017 Artist of the Year. He was recently awarded the prestigious PEN New England Lyrics Award. He continues to record and perform at sold out shows all over the US, Canada, and Europe.