John Prine has written several songs that have become so pervasive many musicians assume they’re timeless public domain classics.
Three of them were on his first album. Released in 1971, it wasn’t a hit (it made it to 154 on the Billboard chart), but thirty years later Rolling Stone rated it one of the 500 best albums of all time.
Prine first picked up a guitar when he was 14. His older brother taught him a few chords and he set out to learn some of the songs he liked on the radio. He liked the sound of the songs, but he found the lyrics wanting. He figured he could do better.
Covered by everyone from Bette Midler to 10,000 Maniacs, “Hello In There” begins with an eight-line verse worthy of O.Henry. It’s a short story about Joe and Loretta, an older couple living alone in an apartment in the city. Their children are all adults –“A life of their own left us alone.” While the song indicts the culture for marginalizing the old –“Please don’t pass ‘em by and stare / As if you didn’t care”— it also indicts the old for their cursory treatment of the young. Three of their children have grown and live far from home, but their fourth child, Davy, is at the heart of the song. “We lost Davy in the Korean war / And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.”
The singer is Loretta’s husband a man equally defeated by his failure to protect his family from the tragedy and his inability to offer his wife any meaningful consolation. “Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more / She sits and stares through the backdoor screen” while the news on the radio “repeats itself” talking about another war. In his notes for the album, Kris Kristofferson wrote: “Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s about two-hundred and twenty”.
It was Kristofferson, after hearing him sing in a Chicago folk club, who took him to Atlantic records. They sent him to Memphis to make his first record with the legendary producer, Arif Mardin. His production privileges Prine’s flinty delivery while setting it against a softly purring country band in an apparent attempt at making it more palatable to the pop audience.
Prine’s sympathy for the older generation, widely vilified by many of his peers in the late 1960’s, made “Angel From Montgomery” an instant classic. The song echoes many of the same sentiments as “Hello In There.” But this time the story’s told by his wife, a character reminiscent of Archie Bunker’s patiently beleaguered wife, Edith, whose crie de couer – “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning / And come home in the evening with nothing to say” – offered an insight shared by few men of any age in that era.
The songs retain their power because, as he told Roger Ebert in 1970, “In my songs I try to look through someone else’s eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message.”
Given that, it’s perhaps ironic that the most celebrated song on the album, and the one covered by the broadest range of artists, is “Paradise,” a song about his own life. Written for his father when Prine was in the army in Germany, it’s a wistful paean to Paradise, the small town in Muhlenberg County in Western Kentucky where his parents grew up and he spent his summers as a boy (“Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot our pistols / But empty pop bottles was all we would kill”). As always, the sting is in the chorus. Conjuring sweet memories while so far from home, he asks his father to take him back to his childhood haunts one more time. His father’s answer is an achingly eloquent ecological argument at a time when only a few people were talking about that –“Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking / Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” That everyone from The Everly Brothers (whose father was also from Muhlenberg County) and The Country Gentlemen to Jimmy Buffett and John Fogerty has covered the song is a testament to Prine’s political subtlety.
These songs are still the centerpiece of his setlists. It’s likely he’ll sing at least a couple of them when he plays with his ace trio (the fleet fingered Jason Wilber on guitar and Dave “Shakey Legs” Jacques on bass) in The Tivoli on Saturday November 10th .