Singer-songwriters don’t come any more respected than John Prine. Bob Dylan compared him to Proust. Kris Kristofferson suggested he was so good “we’re gonna have to break his fingers”.
Nick Bollinger talks to the veteran singer-songwriter ahead of a rare visit to New Zealand.
With classics like ‘Sam Stone’, ‘Angel From Montgomery’, and ‘Hello In There’, the Chicago mailman-turned singer-songwriter established his greatness straight out of the gate with his self-titled 1972 debut. And remarkably he’s sustained it for close to half a century.
As someone said, he’s the rare songwriter who can make you laugh and cry in the same song.
When I catch up with him on his wife Fiona’s cellphone, he is laughing. It’s a warm baritone rumble. His voice has been deeper and rougher since a cancer operation on his neck in the 90s. A further bout with cancer earlier this decade – lung cancer this time – seems to have added even more grit to its texture. But Prine sounds relaxed and happy.
It’s the day before his 72nd birthday, he is at Atlanta airport, about to board a plane to Mexico City for a six-day vacation and he’s just found out that he’s been nominated for the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. “I think I’m using all my lucky coupons at the same time,” he says, with a chuckle.
I don’t doubt that Prine deserves the accolade, but his music is so idiosyncratic he really needs a Hall of Fame of his own. What does rock’n’roll mean to him?
“Maybe it’s freedom,” he muses. “Freedom to do what you like. Basically rock’n’roll is just an attitude, you know. A good one but an attitude just the same, whether you get up there and you got Marshall amps and you’re rocking out or whether you get up there with words. To me, that’s what it is.”
Prine writes lovely melodies, elemental tunes you feel you’ve known all your life, but it is his words that really distinguish him. I note that he seems to get a lot of amusement from words and he agrees.
“I don’t know exactly where my love of words came from. My mother is a good storyteller. I didn’t like school. It wasn’t from there. But I found it always easy to rhyme. It’s what do you want to rhyme about? That’s the tough part.”
Prine doesn’t seem to have much trouble finding subjects to rhyme about. A song from his latest album The Tree Of Forgiveness, ‘When I Get To Heaven’, is like a tour of his imagination as he describes the afterlife he pictures for himself.
As God is my witness
I’m getting back into showbusiness
I’m gonna open up a nightclub called
‘The Tree Of Forgiveness’
And forgive everybody
Ever done me any harm
I might invite a few choice critics
Those syphilitic parasitics…
Surely no one has ever rhymed ‘syphilitic’ and ‘parasitic’ in a song before. Where did that rhyme come from?
He chuckles again. “You know the singer-songwriter Amanda Shires? She was on a train with me in the UK and she saw I was writing a song and she said ‘Hey, did you ever use a rhyming app?’ I said ‘I’ve never used a rhyming app or a rhyming book’ and she says ‘come on, try it out’ and I said ‘Put the word critic in there’ and she did and the first two words that came out were ‘syphilitic’ and ‘parasitic’ so I said ‘I’ve got to use that!’”
His subject matter too, rises out of everyday encounters. His gift is an ability to hear the extraordinary in the everyday. Another recent song bears the title ‘Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone)’. I wonder whether it is just because I’m from New Zealand that I’m unfamiliar with this apparent ritual – Egg and Daughter Nite. Is it perhaps something everyone in the American Midwest knows about?
Another chuckle. “Believe me they don’t. I had never heard of it before a fishing buddy brought it up while were out on the river one day. He told me that was what they used to refer to Thursday evenings as because the egg farmers came to town and they dropped their daughters at the roller skating rink or the bowling alley and these guys would make time with the country girls while their fathers were selling eggs in town. Egg and daughter night. It’s not a well-known thing by any means. Don’t feel bad about it!”
Though Prine’s songs carry the unmistakable stamp of his uniquely skewed view on the world – “pure Proustian existentialism” according to Bob Dylan – a remarkable number of his compositions, particularly in recent years, have been co-written. Again, it is a case of chance more than calculation. “I write with friends who happen to be songwriters too. These are guys I hang out with and if we hang out long enough we’re bound to come up with a song.”
An unexpected co-writer has been Roger Cook, the English songwriter known for the eternal pop concoction ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ as well as ‘Melting Pot’ – a hit in this country for When The Cat’s Away. Prine met the expatriate Cook not long after both had moved to Nashville, nearly 40 years ago.
“You ever heard of Cowboy Jack Clement?” he asks, referring to the songwriter and producer who first made his name at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in the 1950s. “Jack’s house was kind of a ‘melting pot’ for songwriters.”
There he goes again, his ear for phrases ever active; in this case picking up my mention of ‘Melting Pot’ and casually recycling it.
“It was just a hangout for musicians and songwriters and most of the friends I have today in Nashville, long-term friends, I met ‘em over at Jack’s house. We ‘came buddies long before we tried to write together, cause he’s a different kind of writer. Roger writes real commercial, three-minute or three-and-a-half-minute songs, but we thought because we hung out together so much we’d try and write together. And it works. It works really good. About one every five years.”
An even more curious co-write on The Tree Of Forgiveness is ‘God Only Knows’. It is credited to Prine and Phil Spector, the ‘Wall of Sound’ producer, currently serving 19 years to life for the 2003 murder of Lana Clarkson. It’s the second Prine-Spector song to appear on one of his records.
“Yeah, I didn’t go to the jail to write ‘em. I wrote a song with him for my Bruised Orange record called ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’ and when I went back to play it for him about six months after – this is about 1978 probably - he sat down and wrote about three quarters of this song ‘God Only Knows’, so I never finished up until this record.”
I note that the song seems to be about regret. What does Prine think about when he sings it? “I think it’s more dealing with yourself, with your conscience. Are you right with yourself? Do you know when you’re not right? It’s not pointing fingers at anybody. It’s talking about yourself and how well do you know yourself and do you follow your own rules that you can live up to? The song was written before he ever went to jail, so…”
But in the light of that it does have a certain resonance.
“Yeah, I know. I have to say it takes on a different thing, at least for him. He’s a writer-producer. And now a convicted murderer.
“That’s something to add to your resume.”
John Prine plays live:
Wednesday 27 February - Bruce Mason Centre | Auckland, NZ
Thursday 28 February - Isaac Theatre Royal | Christchurch, NZ
Saturday 2 March - TSB Arena | Wellington, NZ