Music to My Ears

John Prine

If you google The Voice of Our Generation what pops to the top is Lena Dunham. Not only does it bug me that google has become a verb but I ain’t never heard of Lena Dunham. All you Dunham fans just sit the fuck down. As far as I’m concerned it ain’t my fault I haven’t heard of Lena Dunham. It’s her publicist’s.

By the way, yer gonna have to forgive my grammar because I’ve been listening to a lot of John Prine working on this column.

If you google the Voice of My Generation (boomers) you don’t get shit. Just ads for a TV show and a link to a research paper. Which I guess is perfect. No real answers.

Bob Dylan is typically considered to be the Voice of My G-G-Generation. I love Dylan’s stuff, love his music, and lyrics. But Dylan’s arrogance always put me off a little. Maybe more than a little. But if you smoke a joint and take a hike in Cheyenne Canyon with your ears listening to John Prine you will encounter the Voice of My Generation.

In 1974 I was washing dishes at the P&L Diner in Manchester, CT. It was a typical roadside diner that served breakfast and lunch with the waitresses making $50 a day in tips, all quarters. I worked a set of days that another guy didn’t. That guy, Don Caven was a classic stoner who confused water, soap and hash browns but he was a guitar player and he was in a band. The Pass The Hat Band was a three piece folk band, two guys and a gal playing acoustic guitars and doing music by folks like Prine, Jimmy Buffet, Commander Cody and Joni Mitchell. I had just gotten off a stint with a hard rock band and when Don found out I was a bass player the fog lifted from behind his eyes for a bit and before the fog rolled back in he gave me the address of where the band rehearsed. Of course, it was at the other two players’ house where Stu Clemens and Lois Steely were a couple. Their forte was doing songs not covered by the typical folk band from that era, like Dylan, Baez and Cat Stevens. As well as the four artists previously mentioned they turned me onto Bob Wills, Guy Clark, the New Riders, Doc Watson, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jerry Jeff Walker. I was never in a successful originals band, usually doing covers but as the result of that I developed the eclectic taste that carries me today. For instance the band before this we covered guys like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Aerosmith. The band after was stuff like Steely Dan and The Blues Brothers. In all these cases the musicianship was top notch and I not only had a blast but I learned a lot. 99% of the music I covered in bands I still listen to.

But John Prine really sang to me and still does. His style was so American and his song writing so heart felt, earthy and fucking hilarious it changed my own song writing. And I did more song writing for the Pass The Hat Band than any other band I was in and that was primarily due to Mr. Prine. Still some of my best stuff. Any musician who listens to Prine and loves it, wishes to hell he could write like that.

Diane and I saw John in 1976 at the famous Shaboo Inn in Willington, CT and again in 1982 at a pizza place in Colorado Springs. After wearing out my welcome in CT we moved to Colorado Springs and I turned on friends to Prine’s music. When he came to a small venue in the Springs, fitting maybe 200 people, 8 of us with spouses went. It was a magic evening and I think John was surprised at this rabid small group that knew every song. And all that came from my time with that band and my passing the torch to friends. Music is Magic and Chocolate man.

I’m going to go backwards in his career because that’s how I started listening for this column. I had not kept up with John’s music so I was eager to listen to his latest album.

Prine released Tree of Forgiveness in April 2018. I listened to it the first time a few Sundays ago and ended up listening to it four times in a row. Always a good sign. It’s the first album since 2005’s Fair and Square that featured mostly Prine originals. He’d been doing duets of country classics like For Better, Or Worse and Standard Songs for Average People with Mac Wiseman. Compilations of old songs like The Singing Mailman Delivers and Souvenirs, and some live albums. So a new album with originals on it was not only noteworthy but had the tone of a singing swan. Better listen to this one.

The album debuted at No.5 on the billboard 200, his best rating for any album and No. 1 on the Americana Folk Albums. This is a special record with a lot of his old humor, arrows and screen door philosophy. For the Prine fan this one is a must.

He co-wrote most of the songs, like one with Phil Spector God Only Knows. Yes, that Phil Spector. John always attracted folks from all flights of music. But this one he wrote himself and the Prine fan will recognize every bit of it.

“When I Get To Heaven”

 

In going back I went to the next latest release For Better Or Worse from 2016 with classic country songs, duets with some great country female singers like Iris Dement, Allison Krauss, Holly Williams and Miranda Lambert. This next is a lovely cover of “Falling in Love Again” written by a couple of European wannabes named Freidrich Hollaender and Sammy Lerner who probably never got a nickel from this, a duet with one of the purest singers since Patsy Cline. Yer welcome Allison Krause. Love you by the way.

 

At this point I made a jump to 2005 and Fair And Square. I was intrigued that you had to go back 13 years to get to the last album with original Prine songs. Fair and Square got to No. 55 on the Billboard 200 but more importantly it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2006. You remember the Grammys. Used to showcase the best collection of album and song releases from the previous year from all walks of entertainment. Honestly. That’s what they used to be. Look it up. Used to be important.

I love this entire work. Unlike Tree of Forgiveness this one is primarily Prine compositions and so may be the last. It’s worth a serious listen for that reason alone. It stands on its own. This next is a typical Prine song with a sweet sad chord pattern but with biting lyrics. It’s very reminiscent of earlier stuff like Hello In There and Donald and Lydia from his first release.

“Some Humans Ain’t Human”

 

And this one really reminds of another live tune “Dear Abby” from his first ‘best of’ compilation Prime Prine.

“Other Side of Town”

 

Jump again back to 1991 and his Missing Years release. His first studio release since 1986 this recording resonated throughout the music community. By this time 19 years of Prine albums had gotten him the reputation as the songwriters songwriter. An eclectic group of artists lined up to volunteer for this one. Prine stated later the only thing they paid for was the ‘tape and the engineer’. The list included Albert Lee and David Lindley, Jackson Browne’s longtime lap steel guy. Mike Campbell and Howie Epstein from the Heartbreakers. Epstein volunteered to produce and donated the studio time. Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Everly and Bruce Springsteen did background vocals.

The title for the album was not referring to the years between the studio releases, but the un-recorded years between the childhood and adulthood of Jesus Christ.

“Jesus, The Missing Years”

 

Shiver me timbers.

Now back to 1978 and Bruised Orange. This is a fan favorite because it was the first since Diamonds in the Rough that captured John’s style. From that one “The Hobo Song”.

 

Finally, John Prine’s first album John Prine. If you have lasted through this column it’s only because you are a true Prine fan, and hey how ya doin. This album may be your favorite, and it’s certainly one of mine. Iconic Prine songs that were loved and he performed throughout his career. It’s on Rolling Stones list of greatest 500 albums ever. OK No. 452 but still. Released in 1971 it has “Illegal Smile”, “Sam Stone”, “Donald and Lydia”, “Angel from Montgomery” which was covered famously by Bonnie Raitt, and “Paradise” covered by everybody. This last I still perform, and it brings a tear to me eye every time 48 years later. Remember listening, that this song about the despair of old forgotten people was written by a guy 23 years old.

“Hello In There”

 

Diane and I have tickets to see John at Red Rocks July 28. I splurged for reserved tickets near the front because I want to see if he’s aged as badly as I have.

I spent three days in Colorado this last weekend shoveling snow and for some reason couldn’t keep this next song out of my head. I’m shoveling with one good arm (long story) and singing like Christ on a unicycle. Somethin bout singin and snow I guess. Neighbors have started a collection for my wife.

 

Thank you so much John.