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GRAMMY TALK: JOHN PRINE'S SEPTEMBER SONGS

John Prine, the iconic Americana songwriter, is hiding in the bushes. Well, not quite in the bushes, but in his car behind the bushes, as a Homes of the Stars tour bus idles at the top of the driveway. Confessing, “They really want Kellie Pickler, but someone found out we live a few doors down, so now… Well, it’s OK—we’re buying another house.”

The former Chicago mailman and multiple Grammy winner chuckles to himself. A story like this feels ripe for one of his slightly warped takes on modern politics, love affairs and the overlooked people leading unseen lives of quiet desperation. Having attracted a phalanx of today’s leading singer/songwriters— Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves, Bon Iver, Brandi Carlisle and Amanda Shires among them—the 71-year-old artist is having a revival rivaling that of Johnny Cash in the hands of Rick Rubin, or Bonnie Raitt when she returned with Nick of Time.

But Prine’s moment is self-conjured. With the death of manager Al Bunetta; his wife Fiona, who managed U2’s Windmill Recording Studios in Dublin, taking over his management; and son Jody Whelan helming Oh Boy Records, the label Prine started in 1983 with Bunetta and Dan Einstein, things have never been rosier.

The Tree of Forgiveness, produced by Dave Cobb (Isbell, Simpson, Chris Stapleton), finds the gruff-voiced cancer survivor at the height of his powers. From the yearning “Summer’s End” with its plaintive “Come on home” refrain, to the rousing “Knocking on Your Screen Door” to the terse drive-by commentary of “Caravan of Fools,” this is prime Prine.

With accolades pouring in from The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, NPR, The Chicago Tribune, Mojo, PopMatters and Spin, the man with the candy-heart and industrial strength empathy has been hitting the road with a vengeance. The first musician to read at the Library of Congress, Prine has received the PEN America Literary Award alongside Tom Waits, as well as the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Award, is now hitting a new creative threshold and is loving every minute of it.

Like Levon Helm, Willie Nelson, Chrissie Hynde and Wanda Jackson, Prine is finding a new plateau. With Grammy buzz buzzin’ and tour dates selling out behind his first new album in 14 years, life is good for the man who wrote “Donald & Lydia,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Blow Up Your TV,” “Paradise” and “Angel From Montgomery.” Moving may not be the answer; the way things are going, those tour buses will be pulling up in front of Prine’s house not because some mainstream country star has a home in the neighborhood but because he lives there.


After 13 years, it took checking into a hotel to get the record done?
My wife and manager knows I operate better out of a hotel room. Fiona told me, “You’re going to the Omni for a week. Then we have you booked with Dave Cobb in Studio A for two weeks.” I had 10 boxes of unfinished lyrics, and the Omni’s attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame, so I could duck out from time to time. Bob’s Pork Chop Place, or whatever it’s called, has a nice clientele in the bar in the evening. Met a couple guys who work for the symphony. So I could take breaks.

How’d it go?
I finished a 30-year-old song me and Phil Spector started, “God Only Knows.” I found a song Roger Cook and I wrote 30 years ago to pitch around town: “I Met My Love Today.” It was from a Buddy Holly phase he was going through.

I even had this chorus—“I had my cocktail and my cigarette”—and no idea where I am going to put it, so I started that one inside out. What kind of song would go around that? And I ended up with “When I Get to Heaven.”

Were you miserable?
Well, I’m pretty harsh, because I’ve written good songs on my other records that I’ve not sung in 30 years. So that makes me feel like I need to raise my standards even more.

You got out of the gate pretty fast with John Prine.
There was a real innocence about that first album. But as soon as the record companies get hold of you, that wonder’s gone! You have to come up with a different kind of good, especially since when I wrote those first songs I was afraid “Sam Stone” was such a weird one, people might pass it off as just about a soldier with a hole in his arm.

You’ve always been political.
I don’t like protest songs, though. Yesterday, we were listening to the first pressing of Fair & Square with “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” and I remember us talking about that song when it came out. How it wasn’t protesting but painting a picture about a certain kind of man.

And here you’ve got “Caravan of Fools.”
I looked at the song after we wrote it, and the truth is: the only subject was impending doom, and that’s because it’s in a minor key. When we went to record it—we’d written it before the election—it hit me: I was ahead of my time.

I don’t want to speak for my co-writers, because I don’t know what they were thinking. But I do think it’s hard to say something humorous about him ’cause [President Trump] is a walking cartoon—a very dangerous cartoon. But, it’s enough of a resemblance, when I did NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, I did a disclaimer ’cause I was a couple blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

How was Dave Cobb as a producer?
He’s pretty hands-on, but he didn’t want to listen to demos or hear all the songs at once. He wanted to listen one at a time, and the changes he made, they really changed how we did them. We cut with just bass and drums, so it was very minimal—and every time we took something away, the sound got bigger.

Did he learn anything from you?
Well, he liked my hours and my food choices. He even started liking my drinks by the end.

Drink?
It’s the Handsome Johnny: Red Smirnoff, because it doesn’t kill the bubbles; diet ginger ale, ’cause you want to stay handsome; lime in the winter; lemon in the summer. You serve it in a big bowl of ice, not the European way, with two lonely ice cubes looking up at you.

Do you drink those when you go to your house in Ireland?
Oh, yeah. Over there, they know me. They load me up with bags of ice when I’m ready to go to the house.

Speaking of food, you and Dan Auerbach were writing about pork chops?
[Laughs] Oh, no, when we were writing, I thought the songs were for his solo album. But when I was looking at my songs, I called him up, and said, “I’m going to Prine these up. Pork chops instead of fruit, and there’s a verse about my heart bouncing around like a washing machine.”

Ah, still a Midwestern boy. And now a Midwestern boy who’s truly got a family business, since your manager and business partner died.
Fiona and Jody [Whelan Prine, his son] have a lot to do with that. We keep listening to all these young acts, and everyone Jody’s set me up with turns out was a good match, because I was already more an influence than I ever thought. And they understand the way I work. It’s a lot harder to say no to them. But I also know everything we do is for the kids, and the grandkids. That’s pretty great.

You also still have a great deal of empathy. “Summer’s End” is so forlorn yet comforting. “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” “No Ordinary Blue” tackle the isolation is such great ways. Even “The Lonesome Friends of Science.”
I’m not sure if it’s the age or the generation. But it seems to me even more people have stories, they don’t end the same, but they seem to be where you return. Maybe it’s your family, or your beginnings, or if you’ve got a problem, something you learned.

I think I’ve always had some empathy in my DNA. I don’t know where it came from, except my mother and father, and the things they went through. It’s funny—I think I’m writing a sad song, and I think I’m writing about somebody else, and the more I listen the more I realize how much it’s the same.

With “Summer’s End,” Pat [McLaughlin, the cowriter] didn’t think it needed a chorus, but the more I sang the title, the more it felt like “Come on home.” I think we all need that. Hopefully, Thanksgiving’s not the only invitation out there for people.

 

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