Back From Fishing

John Prine returns to a world stripped of his favorite subject matter . . . humanity

by Tom Hull

Fair & Square
Oh Boy

John Prine stopped at Wichita's Orpheum Theatre last year on his way to some fishing in the Ozarks. Having survived neck cancer and hip replacement, he looked worse for the wear, moved awkwardly, and lost his voice at a couple of points. But he brought a couple of new songs, and after two hours was elated, almost giddy, directing a sing-along on "Illegal Smile" where he substituted "Ashcroft" for the antiquated "Hoffman." The first inkling that he had a mission was when he introduced the second song, describing it as an old song that had been stuffed and mounted on the wall, "but the president wrote me a letter and asked that I bring it back." Then he launched into "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore."

It took another year for a new album with the new songs to materialize. It's touted as his first album of new originals in a decade, but on closer inspection the 14 songs include two covers and seven co-credits. On the other hand, that's about the breakdown of 1995's pre-cancer Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. In both cases the co-written songs sound more like Prine than the solo credits, but the solo credits are more striking, proving that it's easier to find help in Nashville than inspiration. "Crazy as a Loon" shows how this works: starting with one of the similes from "It's a Big Old Goofy World," Prine imagined a serial loser who wound up as a hermit in Canada. Most of the collaborations are bare seed ideas, like "Long Monday" or "Morning Train," that Prine just has to detail to turn into distinctive songs, but they're rarely as intriguing as the ones he writes on his own.

For instance, his "She Is My Everything" and "Other Side of Town" are polar relationship songs--one awestruck and amused, the other beat down but resilient. And then there's the song for our times, "Some People Ain't Human." The targets of his 1984 "People Puttin' People Down" were pathetic, still human in their fallibility. But these days Prine's tolerance for miscreants has worn thin: "They live and they breathe/Just to turn the old screw/They screw you when you're sleeping/They try to screw you blind." One example: "When you're feeling really good/There's always a pigeon/That'll come shit on your hood." More specifically: "Some cowboy from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq." That's not a political song. That's a moral one.


Born October 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois. Parents came from Kentucky. Father was a tool and die maker. Learned guitar at 14, inspired by a grandfather who had played with Merle Travis. After two years in Army, moved to Chicago, where he worked with Steve Goodman. Kris Kristofferson heard Prine and helped land him a record contract. Recorded four albums for Atlantic, then three for Asylum, before he started his own label, Oh Boy.

In 1998 Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, with cancer forming on right side of his neck. Underwent surgery and radiation, which had an affect on his throat and voice. Fair and Square is first album of new originals since 1995, before his cancer.

Key lyric from "Illegal Smile": "won't you please tell the man/I didn't kill anyone."

We saw Prine at the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita KS on May 1, 2004. I wrote the following concert notes in my notebook:

John Prine played Wichita's Orpheum Theater tonight. I was planning on passing, mostly sticker shock due to the $42 tickets, but a friend called me up and offered two comp tickets. I had seen Prine once before -- an outdoor afternoon show at some fair in Portland, ME, in the late '80s. He played an unaccompanied set then, and was terrific: his songs and his vocal delivery have such natural rhythm they don't need much accompaniment, and he can be genuinely funny. Since then a lot of water has rolled over the dam: he soon released his two best post-Atlantic albums (The Missing Years, and even better Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings); he got throat cancer, nearly died, lost much of his voice; he bounced back with a remarkable album of covers, old country male/female duets (In Spite of Ourselves), offloading much of the vocal duty, most notably to Iris Dement -- one of the best things he ever did; he had hip replacement surgery. With the medical problems, he hasn't released an album of original songs since 1995, and it's unlikely that he can sing them like he could before, and I don't much like live music anyway, and, well, $42 times 2 is a lot of money.

Still, it was quite a concert. For a guy who still is just 57, he looks like he's seen a lot of wear. He's put on quite a bit of weight, and he looks robotic when he moves -- the hip, no doubt. His hair is grayed but not solid, and looks like it shoots straight out of his head, like a stubby paintbrush. His voice is harsh, and at one point it momentarily failed him, but even though it was strained it was always clearly his voice singing his songs. He ran through two hours of his songbook, including two new songs that sounded fine. He had two musicians with him: David Jacques (acoustic and electric bass), and Jason Wilber (electric guitar, mandolin). He used three guitars -- an electric for a couple of songs, including the set closer "Lake Marie," and two acoustics. He appeared alone for the middle part of the set, which was the part I enjoyed most. Part of the reason it worked better is that the acoustics of the old theater were generating a lot of reverb on the louder songs. Also his mike may have been mixed a bit low, or perhaps he just had trouble singing clearly over the extra instrumentation. But it's also true that the songs don't need much help, and he's so used to doing them alone that they feel more natural that way. (I don't mean to knock them here; Jacques and Wilber seem to be very competent musicians: they usually added meaningful detail, and their few brief solos were fine.)

The second song was "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven"; Prine introduced it as an old song that had been stuffed and mounted on the wall, "but the President wrote me a letter and asked that I bring it back." Several other war songs appeared in due course. When he finally got to "Illegal Smile" (third of four songs in the encore) he substituted Ashcroft for Hoffman. "Illegal Smile," notably, was turned into a singalong, with the crowd handling the last chorus. The Orpheum was nearly packed (at least the main level, which seats 678; not sure about the balcony, which seats 382), and many people were quicker to recognize songs than I was. The crowd seemed to be mostly in their fifties, and they were definitely his crowd. Prine has sort of a chipmunk smile, which became increasingly evident as the show went on.

Todd Snider opened with a 40-minute set that covered about half of his fine live album, including a couple of stories. He was barefoot, awkward, gawky, funny too. He was well received, and got in a quick encore ("Beer Run").

Songs, authors noted (breakdown is 2 covers, 5 Prine solo, 7 Prine collaborations). Musicians are:

  • John Prine: vocals {all}, acoustic guitar {all}, electric guitar {10}
  • Dave Jacques: bass {1-12}, vocals {14}
  • Jason Wilber: electric guitar {1-2,4-5,7,9,12}, acoustic guitar {11}, gut string guitar {4}, harmonica {9}, vocals {14}
  • Shawn Camp: electric guitar {2,6,8}
  • Pat McLaughlin: mandolin {1-2,4,12}, electric guitar {1-2,4,7,10,12}, acoustic guitar {1-2,10,12}, Wurlitzer {7}, vocals {2,4,7,10-12}
  • John Wilkes Booth: mandolin {14}
  • Dan Dugmore: steel guitar {2,4,7}
  • Phil Parlapiano: accordion {1-5,7-9,11}, piano {2,4-5,7,9-10}, organ {2,4-5,7-8,10}
  • Jerry Douglas: weissenborn {6}
  • Paul Griffith: drums {1-2,4,7,10,12}
  • Kenny Malone: percussion {3,8}
  • Mindy Smith: vocals {3-4,7}
  • Alison Krauss: vocals {6,8}
  • Dan Tyminski: vocals {6}
  1. Glory of True Love (John Prine, Roger Cook): More like the glory of a good, upbeat melody.
  2. Crazy as a Loon (John Prine, Pat McLaughlin): A simile recycled from "It's a Big Old Goofy World."
  3. Long Monday (John Prine, Keith Sykes):
  4. Taking a Walk (John Prine, Pat McLaughlin): Don't know what this lyrics means exactly, but it's striking: "there's a girl in the White House/ I don't even know her name/ her dissheveled appearance/ speaks volumes of shame/ it's an embarrassing situation/ But a situation just the same/ The way she walks on others/ And never takes the blame/ Upsets my constitution/ Beyond its mortal frame." The "ooh-ooh-ah-ha" is one of his old tricks for building to a crescendo where he doesn't have words. The backup singers reiterating "taking a walk" are a little much, although they add a sort of halo to the song. Guitar has a bit of Spanish tinge.
  5. Some Humans Ain't Human (John Prine): Starts slow and pretty, contrast for the bite of the words: "you might go to church/ and sit down in a pew/ those humans who ain't human/ could be sitting right next to you/ they talk about your family/ they talk about your clothes/ when they don't know their own ass/ from their own elbows" . . . "have you ever noticed/ when you're feeling really good/ there's always a pigeon/ that'll come shit on your hood/ or you're feeling your freedom/ and the world's off you back/ some cowboy from Texas/ starts his own war in Iraq." In an interview, Prine explained that he picked up the "jealousy and stupidity" line from Jimmy Martin, who attributed all the problems in Nashville to those two traits.
  6. My Darlin' Hometown (John Prine, Roger Cook):
  7. Morning Train (John Prine, Pat McLaughlin): Starts with steel guitar. Basic walking blues.
  8. The Moon Is Down (John Prine):
  9. Clay Pigeons (Blaze Foley):
  10. She Is My Everything (John Prine):
  11. I Hate It When That Happens to Me (John Prine, Donnie Fritts):
  12. Bear Creek (A.P. Carter): Done as a rocker, with Wilber on electric guitar, Prine playing rhythm on acoustic.
  13. Other Side of Town (John Prine): The first of two bonus tracks. Recorded live 2004 in Nashville at Ryman Auditorium.
  14. Safety Joe (John Prine):

Web references:

  • Copy from Oh Boy Records website: John Prine takes his own sweet time dancing with his muse -- and truly writes what's in his soul. So if it takes him a little longer to write the songs that capture moments and reveal the gently folded human truths that bind us all together, it's always worth the wait. Now, nearly nine years since the release of his Grammy-nominated Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, Fair & Square will be released on Prine's Oh Boy label April 26th. "It was just time," says Prine in his always understated way. "I had a bunch of songs. I'd started recording 'em, and it turns out, I liked 'em pretty well. So, now, I get to get 'em all just the way I like 'em -- and then I get to let 'em go out to meet the world." [NB: Lost Dogs was released Apr. 4, 1995, which means this release came out a bit more than ten years later. Wonder why this arithmetic lapse?]

  • Email from Jocelyn Harms (Lotos Nile): It's been nine years since John Prine -- Grammy-winner, former mailman, iconic American songwriter, chronic dreamer, child of the Midwest, grandchild of Appalachia -- made a record. And in that time, the man whose given us "Sam Stone," "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," "Hello In There," "Blow Up Your TV," "Unwed Fathers," "Ain't Hurtin' Nobody," "Angel From Montgomery," "Souvenirs," "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and "The Great Compromise" made a full-immersion commitment to living that precluded the watching-the-clock school of record making. Listening to Fair & Square, it's obvious that whatever the ever humble musician was doing, it was time well-spent. Not only has he grown more comfortable in his skin, many of the facets that've always marked his writing -- the open-armed humanity, the gentle compassion, the willingness to shine a light on ordinary tableau -- has deepened.

  • Robert Christgau's Blender review: Because John Prine has ranked among our finest songwriters for 35 years, his first album of new material in a decade is a gift. Its two undeniable keepers are up there with his "Hello in There" and "Lake Marie": the weary "Some Humans Ain't Human," a Nashville immigrant's mild, devastating rebuke to the greedheads he rubs shoulders with, and the jolly "She Is My Everything," which makes you wonder why other guys find it so hard to write credible love songs about wives they adore. Most of them do, however--domestic bliss is hell on the confessional muse. And while Prine's fans will admire how smoothly he downshifts from contentment to melancholy and back up again, the unconverted will wish he'd stop relaxing into indirection and Sunday drives down well-traveled roads.

  • Jim Walsh, City Pages: I'll Have a Blizzard with a Topping of Basic American Decency: "He picks his guitar the way a man might pet his dog."


Principal albums (leader, key group member, or feature role):

  • John Prine: John Prine [1971; Atlantic]
  • John Prine: Diamonds in the Rough [1972; Atlantic]
  • John Prine: Sweet Revenge [1973; Atlantic]
  • John Prine: Common Sense [1975; Atlantic]
  • John Prine: Bruised Orange [1978; Asylum; Oh Boy 6]
  • John Prine: Pink Cadillac [1979; Asylum]
  • John Prine: Storm Windows [1980; Asylum; Oh Boy 8]
  • John Prine: Aimless Love [1984; Oh Boy 2]
  • John Prine: German Afternoons [1988; Oh Boy 3]
  • John Prine: Live [1988; Oh Boy 9]
  • John Prine: The Missing Years [1991; Oh Boy 9]
  • John Prine: A John Prine Christmas [1993; Oh Boy]
  • John Prine: Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings [1995; Oh Boy 13]
  • John Prine: Live on Tour [1997; Oh Boy 15]
  • John Prine: In Spite of Ourselves [1999; Oh Boy 19]
  • John Prine: Souvenirs [2000; Oh Boy 21]
  • John Prine: Fair and Square [2005; Oh Boy]


  • John Prine: Prime Prine: The Best of John Prine [1971-1975; Atlantic]
  • John Prine: Great Days: The John Prine Anthology [1971-1991; Rhino 71400: 1993]
  • John Prine/Donnie Fritts/R.B. Morris/Heather Eatman/The Bis-Quits/Keith Sykes: Lucky 13 [Oh Boy 18: 1998.11.10] -- 3 live tracks, plus other Oh Boy artists
Total records in list above: 20 (14 in house, 0 from other sources).