In Appreciation of John Prine

Posted by Amoebite, March 31, 2020 07:07pm | Post a Comment

By Mark Beaver

By all means of measurement, 1971 was a monster of a year:

Idi Amin took power in Uganda, US-backed South Viet Nam invaded Laos, huge protests against the Viet John PrineNam War were taking place across the world ramped up by the New York Times publishing of the Pentagon Papers. The "troubles" of Northern Ireland were in full burn and earthquakes beat the heck out of Turkey, just to name a few of the struggles that world citizens were facing.

At the same time, great ideas were afoot and some of the most defining music of the decade was being released:

Led Zeppelin IV, Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones, All Day Music by WAR, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, The Who’s Who's Next, Electric Warrior by T.REX, Pearl by Janis Joplin, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, Tapestry by Carole King, Blue by Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Paul McCartney’s Ram, John Lennon’s Imagine, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and outsider masterpieces bubbling below the charts from the likes of Nick Drake, Judee Sill, and Gil Scott-Heron.

We also first heard the term "kraut rock"’ thanks to CAN, Kraftwerk, and Amon Düül II.

Nestled in amongst all this to-do was John Prine’s self-titled debut. Promoted by his friend Kris Kristofferson, the album cover features Prine in jeans, boots, and a blue chambray shirt sitting casually on some hay bales, his guitar leaning against the bales off to his right.

What you see is what you get.

Prine gave us 13 stories, told so openly and sadly and hilariously and simply, that I often have to go back and listen again just to be SURE that he’s not playing unaccompanied. Nope, he’s got a full band of drums, keyboards, organ, fiddle, and multiple guitars, including the great Steve Goodman. But, the immediacy of his nasal twang and guitar picking certainly give the impression of a tale spinner alone in a room.

In 1971, Prine was thinking way ahead of the mid-western folk-country pack. Certainly there were already other outliers in the field: Kristofferson, Michael Hurley, Townes Van Zandt, and in the next couple of years we’d hear a similar approach from Terry Allen.

John Prine's first album showed that he was skeptical of organized religion (“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” “Pretty Good”) government and its wars (“Sam Stone”) pop culture (“Spanish Pipedream”) the Western idea of progress (“Paradise”), and a bit threadbare regarding his feelings about lasting love (most of the album).

"Illegal Smile" is likely the most known of the album’s tracks, having a ready-made chorus for casual weed users of all creeds, and carries the stamp of what Prine would build his long career on: masterfully wry stories of people facing hard situations, whether they be from abuse, lack of love, addiction, manipulation by government, religion and the media, or just the long grind of years.

There is always humor, but in the funniest of his songs there is typically an undertone of pain and struggle. Or maybe I should say that there’s always struggle, but in a John Prine song there’s always a trace of an illegal smile.

Another 20 albums have followed on this stellar debut, most of them as insightful, sad, funny, and occasionally angry as he was, gathering the best singers and songwriters of the ensuing decades.

His songs have been performed by Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, George Strait, Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, and Dwight Yoakam among others, and his albums have featured Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, Iris DeMent, and many, many more.

John Prine passed away April 7th from complications from the COVID-19 virus. I and the AMOEBA crew are saddened to lose another songwriting legend to this disease. I’m sure he’s finding the humor in his situation, wherever it can be found.

Thanks for reading. I’m gonna go play “Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian” on my ukulele.

Relevant Tags

Covid-19 (2), Terry Allen (1), Townes Van Zandt (13), Michael Hurley (10), Steve Goodman (4), Kris Kristofferson (3), Mark Beaver (1), John Prine (5), Coronavirus (4)