John Prine began his artistic journey in 1971 with the release of John Prine, a stunning collection of poems set to melody that revealed middle America in all its simple beauty, isolated ignorance and survivalist brutality. His capacity for wit softened the blow, but the stark portrayals of dead-end lives playing out in the midst of the social tumult and youthful optimism of the times was both devastating and somehow profoundly uplifting. With his debut, Prine took his place at the table of American poet savants with the likes of Guthrie, Dylan and Baez, over the years to be joined by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. Forty-five years later, he’s going strong.
A son of Illinois, Prine has lived in Nashville for most of his life and has become a steadfast guardian of the insight and integrity of true American songwriting. Loved by all, without an enemy in the world, he has soldiered on through the peaks and valleys of his own life, always there to help us understand those of our own.
A trio of gems from that first album reveal the genius and emotional range of John Prine. In “Donald and Lydia”, Prine peaks at life through the eyes of lonely outsiders and renders a masterpiece about the universal redemption of simple romantic love.
“Hello in There” is an impossibly affecting meditation on aging, sketching the fading joy and pregnant memories of a waning life. “Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more. She sits and stares through the back door screen.” Uncommon wisdom from a man still in his twenties.
While the protest songs of the Vietnam era were mostly strident calls for action, Prine’s “Sam Stone” was a brilliant and sobering take on the coming residue of that existentialist American conflict. Returning from the war shattered and addicted, Sam Stone’s young children curiously observed that “there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”, and we came to understand that many of those returning men, or boys, were forever broken, their souls sickened with horror and bitter disillusionment that we could never understand. Like John said, “sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.”
Three things to know about John Prine: (1) before beginning his musical career he did stints in the Army and as a mailman; (2) he was introduced to Atlantic Records by Kris Kristofferson, resulting in his debut album; and (3) his famous song “Paradise” is set in the town of his paternal roots, Paradise, Kentucky.