Even when considering the wide world of Singer-Songwriters….and for the sake of clarity let’s focus on the ones that come with a possibly authentic ‘folksy’ charm (Will Oldham is not Will Rogers), John Prine is unusual.
It’s not that he can’t out ‘folksy’ most of these folksters, but this, in like everything he does, is seemingly effortless.
This came to me with a listening to ‘Live and On Stage’ where me charmingly mumbled his way through a story about Billy Bob Thornton in the introduction to the brilliant tribute to modern, real and ugly love ‘In Spite Of Ourselves’.
Thornton suggested to John he should write a song to close out the credits, something in line with the characters and John’s typecast ‘brother in law with low self esteem’ acting gigs. And in this song, with its references to panty sniffing and the erotic appeal of prison movies, he weaves a real and perfect argument that love is not a cosmic notion, that we don’t all feel and share love the same way.
And that is why John Prine is different. He understands the idea that there is no universal sense of happiness. We must hardscrabble and work too long days at pointless jobs. And pan for gold for our joy. He doesn’t sell a bill of goods that your bliss is anything but fleeting. But fleeting bliss beats no bliss.
The genre Americana was invented to describe John Prine. Not simply due to his knowledge of trad folk and blues forms, and a lyrical sense that can get timeless when focused on the social or political. Or when combining the two. As much as I love ‘Sam Stone’ from the first record, a perfect protest to post war malaise, its ‘Donald and Lydia’ that sticks with me.
A love story…maybe….but a love story for monsters. I don’t mean the fun mutated type, I mean people you wouldn’t elect to spend even a single second considering if not for the masterful pen and POV of Prine. And clearly he’s got some psychic in him, cause this is the Internet’s first real love song, though the Internet was decades away. It’s about longing and loneliness and desire to be desired by something, someone, somewhere.
Watching John’s career trajectory through his 70’s work is a lesson in Record Company History. Within his small simple songs, the infection of excess wormed in and horn sections and too many strings, too much studio. But his direction never wavered. He took this ‘being in the right place at the wrong time’ vibe and folded it right into the songs and kept writing them. In a sense, raising a mirror to the industry that they wouldn’t even recognize in 20 years time.
And now, an elder statesman, but not one with the mass appeal of a Willie Nelson, who everyone loves and generally gets. John operates in the shadow of the Music Industry buildings, with a faithful and true connection to his many fans that will have him only grow into deeper colors as he goes on and keeps writing.
In a perfect world, Prine would be Springsteen. But in a perfect world, we would have no need for the surgeon steady perception’s of John Prine.