Treble 100: No. 58, John Prine – John Prine

John Prine s/t debut Treble 100

As he trundled through the cold and snow of an Illinois winter delivering mail, could John Prine have possibly imagined that the words and melodies that were bubbling up in his brain would one day form the backbone of one of the most beloved singer/songwriter albums in music history? Consider for a moment the unlikely series of events that had to transpire for those then-rudimentary songs to make it to his 1971 debut album, simply titled John Prine:

  • Prine gets drafted into the U.S. Army, but is one of the few men from his basic training group sent to a non-combat post in Germany, instead of into the perils of Vietnam.
  • While sitting at a local club on an open mic night, he grumbles about the quality of the performers on stage and is then dared by the patrons at a nearby table to see if he can do better. He gets up on stage and performs “Sam Stone,” leaving the audience slack-jawed in amazement, earning him a permanent gig from the club owner.
  • Not long after, a mutual friend brings Kris Kristofferson to see Prine perform. Kristofferson is so blown away by what he hears that he asks Prine to perform his entire set again. That experience greases the wheels for Prine’s record deal at Atlantic and the recording of the self-titled debut.

Yet even considering all those fortunate twists that needed to happen for it to be made, the music on that album feels inevitable. The wit and wisdom contained within those songs is timeless, like they’ve been handed down through many generations. Prine’s grizzled voice, which Bob Dylan told him sounded as if he’d “swallowed a Jew’s harp,” created that effect to some extent. But it’s important to remember that he was only 25 years old when the album appeared. How could an artist come out of the gate sounding as relaxed, as surehanded, as unerringly right as John Prine?

“Sam Stone” was Exhibit A of Prine’s ability to see to the heart of an issue without resorting to grandiose tactics to elucidate his point. As a veteran himself, he was attuned to the plight of those coming home from Vietnam as they attempted to readjust to society while dealing with their physical and mental wounds. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose,” sings Prine (later paid tribute by Spiritualized’s J Spaceman). Hearing those searing, unsparing words coming from that aw-shucks voice is startling no matter how many times the song is replayed.

That ability to insert insight without seeming overly earnest or righteous stood out at the time. Many of his contemporaries either spewed venom or peddled saccharine, without much territory covered in between. Prine constantly found the fertile middle ground of common sense, often while tackling subject matter that went untouched by most others, then and now. “Hello In There” remains the most moving of laments about the neglect of the elderly by society at large. Had Prine jumped on a soapbox and railed about it, the song wouldn’t have worked. Instead, he touched on the macro by diving into the micro, examining an older couple’s slow descent into obsolescence.

An older couple also figures in “Angel from Montgomery,” but the tone is vastly different. Prine opens the song by barking out, “I am an old woman,” again doing something few of his peers would do by writing from a female perspective. Unlike the couple in “Hello In There,” this woman doesn’t want to go gently into that good night, instead trying to reconcile youthful dreams and ambitions with her current ennui, while bristling at her husband’s lack of vim and vigor: “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning/And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?

Prine also separated from the pack with his ability to write songs that were effortlessly and genuinely funny. He put that quality right up front, ending the album’s first song, “Illegal Smile” with the cornball lines “Hot dog bun/My sister’s a nun.” That humor often served as the Trojan Horse to deliver social commentary to his listeners. “Illegal Smile” winks at drug culture, but also has a blast with a narrator who loses a staring contest to a bowl of oatmeal and finds kinship only from insurance salesmen. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” uses a rollicking shaggy-dog story to take a swipe at those who blindly support their country’s involvement in wars.

Like many songwriting greats, Prine had a way of alchemizing formative life events into stories and songs relatable to the wider audience. “Sam Stone” and “Hello In There” (he once delivered newspapers to a home for the elderly) are obvious examples, as well as “Paradise,” which details the deterioration of his father’s Kentucky hometown but can stand in for any small town that’s seen better days due to “the progress of man.”

Even on the lesser-known songs on the album, his memories find funny ways of popping up. “Far From Me” is a pinpoint rendering of the death throes of a romantic relationship. The line “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring” came from Prine’s reminiscences of playing in a junkyard as a boy. A juvenile delinquent friend of his was the inspiration for “Six O’Clock News,” a devastating slice of life that’s darker than you might expect from someone with Prine’s genial reputation.

The John Prine album closes out with “Flashback Blues,” which sails by so amiably on its country rock groove that it might seem anticlimactic on first listen. But when you delve into Prine’s lyrics, you’ll hear it as the perfect summation of what’s come before on the record. The narrator can’t help but looking back, even when it brings pain: “Photographs show the laughs/Recorded in between the bad times.” Ultimately, he finds himself, “Waving goodbye with tears in my eyes,” before realizing, “Well, sure I made it, but you know it was a hell of trip.”

This album is indeed a hell of a trip, one where the memories and ghosts of the author’s life to that point are polished and repurposed to mesmerizing effect. Now, after more than 50 years, they’ve become an indelible part of the past for those who treasure this record, all while continuing to illuminate moving forward into the future. 

And what lesson might the incomparable, deeply-missed John Prine wish to impart as we contemplate his debut record today? Well, maybe the next time you see that the person who’s delivering your mail is in deep thought, maybe hesitate for a moment before breaking their concentration and saying hello. There might just be a masterpiece brewing in there.

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