If Bob Dylan had a hint of empathy he would make a good John Prine

by A. Frank Grunt

Forty-three years ago, mid-winter ’77, three underage teens, who thought they were men, hoped into a ’69 Dodge Dart to drive from Glace Bay, Cape Breton to New Waterford, Cape Breton, in search of cheap beer and a doorman who was in search of an extra buck.

They found both at a place called the Stag & Doe.

Now to find love, or whatever.

The trio joined tables with a pair of New Waterford girl roommates. The gals were a little older but that wasn’t to be held against them.

An after-hours house party ensued.

Late in the early morning hours the third teen, who could suck booze out of a shitty rag, looked around for his two buddies & his two new gal-pal roommate friends.

All four had made their escape to the upstairs. Bound to win a prize, as they say.

Unfortunately, the third buddy was left with a fridge full of Ten Penny, a smoked glass Radio Shack turntable and a small record collection.

After suffering the torment of Barry Manilow & Abba he found a well-worn LP he had never seen nor heard before.

The album cover had a young guy decked out in denim and shitkickers sitting pensively amid bales of hay.

He played both sides of that record until the sun came up and the beer was gone.

Thus, began a 43-year love affair with John Prine.

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As I write this, John Prine, 73, a two-time cancer survivor with part of one lung ripped from his body, is on a ventilator fighting the Beast in an intensive care unit at a Nashville hospital.

No way for this brilliant singer-songwriter to go down.

It defies both cruelty and irony that a man whose music, whose passion, whose poetry, has given so much to so many over the past 50-years, that he should struggle for his life alone, surrounded by strangers.

And the only melody playing is the rhythmic hiss of a respirator.

Pandemics don’t care who they fuck with.

When he burst upon the folk scene in 1971, and he did burst, John Prine, like so many before and after him was flagged the “next Bob Dylan”.

That’s a long list of contenders.

In more contemporary times names like Bruce Springsteen, Little Stevie Forbert, Steve Earle have each been added to that ceaseless compendium.

Dylan, 79, the always self-absorbed sneering contrarian is in some exceptional company.

But John Prine could never be Bob Dylan. He shares neither the cynicism nor the anger. He ain’t no poster boy.

The Maywood, IL, native has never aspired to be the next anything, least of all the next Bob Dylan. Or the next “voice of a generation”, whatever cliché over-the-top followers or unimaginative music critics use to describe Dylan. A handle Dylan hates, by the way.

But make no mistake if Bob Dylan had a hint of empathy, he would make a good John Prine. Good, of course, meaning reasonable. Passable with caution, if you will.

Vocally neither man will ever be mistaken for Pavarotti.

No matter.

Prine doesn’t preach to you. He decodes life rather than telling you how to live it. He will come at you with “a head full of hope and a heart full of wonder”; a romantic at heart, shy, oftentimes confused, but with courage, or stupidity enough, to get back on the horse.

But that’s just one side of the former Illinois mailman.

He is also a master at looking at life through an awry angle, unearthing nuance after nuance which evade those blessed with lesser powers of observation.

Fact is, John Prine was never built for the public square.

What he will offer you is a meditation, not a rant, and if you cannot pick up on the subtlety? Well, that’s not John Prine’s fault.

He’s understated and self-deprecating.

His music is enduring and endearing.

Prine’s words (his Pink Cadillac album notwithstanding) lend to the score a glorious unrivaled cinematic quality.

You picture “Lydia, the fat girl daughter of Virgina & Ray”; you’re in that car with “Mrs. Tom Walker and her beautiful daughter Pamela”; you watch a “big ol’ goofy man dancin’ with a big ol’ goofy girl”; and that child with “the two first names” James Lewis, you see his “brains on the sidewalk” and the “blood on his shoes.”

Prine’s music is rooted, not in any particular order, in Carter Family country, Bill Monroe blue grass, and Gordon Lightfoot folk.

He cites Lightfoot as an influence on his work, as well as Hank Williams, Roger Miller and Kris Kristofferson.

The end result means Prine’s work straddles both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s Appalachia meets Western Kentucky, meets Mid-West Illinois.

The Prine family roots are in Western Kentucky.

Grandfather Prine moved his family from the small town of Paradise, Kentucky to Maywood, IL, in 1924. Moving 450-miles to the north in search of a better wage, a better life for his family.

Paradise, after it was torn down, was immortalized in Prine’s song of the same name from that haystack album, his 1971 debut album, simply titled John Prine.

“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenburg County

Down by the Green River where Paradise lay,

Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in askin’

Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”

Strip mining aficionados, the mammoth Peabody Coal Company were none too pleased with the tune. They later changed their name to the Peabody Energy Company.

Prine wrote the tune for his father Bill Prine, a burly, beer drinkin’ union man who helped the Steelworkers Union unionize his Maywood place of employment the American Can Company who were going great guns with the introduction of the beer can.

Prior to the album release in ’71 the son played the tune for the father on borrowed tape recorder. Burly Bill Prine insisted on listening to Paradise, alone, in the dark so the son would not see the father cry. Per chance.

The father, who loved Hank Williams, didn’t play an instrument or write songs. He would sit on his step with a can of beer and the family radio listening to Suppertime Frolic, a syndicated country & western show out of Chicago. They played a lot of Hank Williams.

A month or two before the official release of his son’s debut album Bill Prine suffered a fatal heart attack on that same step. He was 56-years-old.

Son, John, the third of Bill & Verna Prine’s four boy was 23-years-old at the time.

Grandpa was a Carpenter was written for Bill’s father, John’s grandfather the family patriarch.

He died around 1956 when Prine was 10-years-old:

“Grandpa was a carpenter he built houses, stores and banks

Chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and hammered nails in planks

He was level on the level and shaved even every door

Voted for Eisenhower cause Lincoln won the war”

A very young Prine started making notes on what he remembered of his grandfather which would later morph into the tune.

He always loved taking notes and ripping curious headlines from any newspaper he laid his eyes on.

As we all should know by now, Prine’s “Dear Abby” was written in the early 70’s, as a spoof on a number of troubled souls who turned to the popular advice columnist to set their lives straight:

“Dear Abby, Dear Abby….

Well I never thought that me and my girlfriend would ever get caught,

We were sitting in the back seat just shooting the breeze

With her hair up in curlers and her pants to her knees,

Signed, Just Married….”

The tune was written in a hotel room in Rome when the singer-songwriter and his first wife, she of Italian extraction, were visiting the motherland.

When a bored Prine couldn’t find anything in a small international newspaper worth reading he turned to Dear Abby and got a song out of the do-gooder.

Incidentally, if within, say the last 40 years or so, you may have been getting “sociable”, as they say, at a Nova Scotia pub, and pie-eyed and needy you approached, um, the cookie cutter Celtic band to ask if they knew any Prine?

The answer you likely got back was, “Sure do by’e. We know Dear Abby, Grandpa was a Carpenter, and Please Don’t Bury Me.

To which the routine response should always be, to paraphrase Judy Collins, “You really don’t know Prine at all!”

Kris Kristofferson knew Prine.

He is largely credited with discovering the 24-year-old mailman at a Chicago watering hole during the Windy City’s folk revival days when Prine was playing three or four nights a week.

But only on the insistence of Prine’s late friend Steve (City of New Orleans) Goodman did Kristofferson show up, basically, and remarkably unselfishly, telling Kristofferson, “If you think I’m good you should meet my friend John!”

And Kris didn’t show up alone.

That well-known Canadian folk-singing authority, Paul Anka, tagged along with Kris that night.

Crooner Anka was thinking about getting into music management and he was looking for fresh meat.

Also, not to be forgotten in the Cinderella story of John Prine is the late Roger Ebert, the pudgy young movie critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, who after a hard day of movie reviewing Midnight Cowboy or Little Big Man, or whatever, sauntered off, as per usual, for a pint and a little entertainment.

Ebert then wrote his one and only music review.

‘The Singing Mailman Delivers’ screamed the headline in the Chicago Sun-Times from the slightly hungover hack.

On Anka’s dime Prine flies to New York City.

Within 24-hours he has a five-year $25,000-per recording contract with Atlantic Records. The average working man yearly salary back home in Maywood was about $10,000.

And Prine didn’t even have to go anywhere near Dylan’s New York Greenwich Village.

John Prine could quit the post office and let his hair grow.

He did some of his best work at Atlantic: Sam Stone, Souvenirs, Hello in There, Angel from Montgomery, Come Back to Us Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard, Common Sense, Christmas in Prison, The Accident, Blue Umbrella, The Late John Garfield Blues, Take the Star Out of The Window.

But back in the day, getting Christmas in Prison played on FM radio stations in December wasn’t quite enough for Atlantic. In 1977 they did not renew Prine’s contract so he moved onto Asylum Records.

In 1981, Prine and his long-time manager Al Bunetta finally said the frig with record companies, and founded John’s new independent label Oh Boy Records.

Ahem! Two Grammy winning albums later, The Missing Years (‘92) and Fair & Square, (’06), and a lesser man might be gloating.

But that’s not John Prine. Not the man’s style to crow about awards.

He’s an unassuming genius who loves meatloaf, fishing, Christmas, Archie comic books, old 78 records, his classic car collection and loathes vegetables, and the mess that post-classic country music has become.

He calls it “bad pop music.” Poorly written.

And he’s not wrong.

“I don’t know anything ‘bout song writing but I know I couldn’t write that stuff,” he wryly told one interviewer.

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Maywood, Illinois has a lot to do with it.

That’s the blue-collar low-rent Chicago suburb where John Prine grew up at 1110 S. First Avenue, conveniently located near the local dump, where he spent the first 20 years of his life. Packed into the two-story, wooden rental A-frame with his parents and brothers, Dave, Doug & Billy.

It was Dave, ten years older, who taught John to play guitar at age 14.

He loved it. Loved the pickin'.

And he would often practice in a darkened closet, as Prine says, "I had to do that just in case I went blind...."

Prine now had music to accompany the little ditties he had been writing through his teenage years. A number of which he would often pin to the gymnasium bulletin board of his alma mater Proviso East High School. Drove his English teacher crazy.

Maywood, by no measure as affluent as nearby Oak Park where Hemingway grew up in a seven-bedroom house was the ultimate “melting pot”.

While Prine was growing up there the joint maintained a steady population of about 27,000 residents and such postwar businesses as: Mario’s Import Motors; Pip’s Carry Out; Misicka’s Food Shop; and Lange Drugs.

Historically, the Underground Railroad ensured a healthy black population. Maywood also boasted a sizable Hispanic population, as well American natives, Asians, and European Caucasians.

Italian, Polish, Jewish, German, Ukrainian, the skilled tradesman and the aspiring factory worker made Maywood home.

John Prine could not have found a more wondrous laboratory in which to experiment, to observe, to work his subtlety, and to which he would attach his remarkable imagination.

A couple of tunes from that laboratory spring readily to mind:

--

Six O’Clock News

“Wanda had baby in nineteen fifty-one

The father was a stranger and a stranger was the son

Call that child James Lewis, call these rooms a home,

Changing all them diapers, polish all that chrome

C’mon baby spend the night with me…”

In Prine’s own words:

“As a child, a neighborhood kid who was always in trouble chose me for a friend. His brothers pushed him around a lot, and his mother generally ignored him. Years later as a teenager, still in trouble, he ended up in Juvenile Court and the prosecutor decided to tell the court and my friend, that his father was his father, but that his mother was actually his oldest sister. No wonder he was always in trouble.”

The last verse concludes the incestuous tale:

“Sneaking in the closet and through the diary

Now, don’t you know all he saw was all there was to see

The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o’clock news

His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes

C’mon, baby, spend the night with me

C’mon, baby, spend the night with me…”

--

Far From Me

“As the café was closin’

On a warm summer night

Cathy was cleanin’ the spoons,

The radio played the Hit Parade

And I hummed along with the tune

She asked me to change the station

Said the song just drove her insane

But it weren’t just the music playin’

It was me she was tryin’ to blame

And the sky is black and still now

On the hill where the angels sing

Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle

Looks just like a diamond ring?

But it’s far, far from me…”

Again, the last verse of another true Prine story is a knife in your gut:

“Well, I started the engine and I gave it some gas

And Cathy was closin’ her purse

Well, we hadn’t gone far in my beat-up old car

And I was prepared for the worse.

‘Will you still see me tomorrow?’

‘No, I got too much to do.’

Well a question ain’t really a question

If you know the answer, too…”

It’s a full-blown story of unrequited love featuring Prine’s first girlfriend who broke up with him when they were teenagers.

So, he went home to write her a tune.

--

For the imagery, try this one on for size as a young Prine laments the sudden death of father in He Was in Heaven Before He Died:

“There’s a rainbow of babies

Draped over the graveyard

Where all the dead sailors

Wait for their brides

And the cold bitter snow

Has strangled each glass blade

While the salt from their tears

Washed out with the tide

And I smiled on the Wabash

The last time I passed it

Yes, I gave her a wink

From the passenger side

And my foot fell asleep

As I swallowed my candy

Knowing he was in heaven

Before he died”

--

For sheer metaphor Prine nails it with his early '70s Vietnam protest song The Great Compromise.

He likens America to a beautiful woman “born on the 4th of July”. As Prine writes, she’s “almost a lady….”

He meets her at a honky-tonk and they go “to the drive-in on Route 41”.

When this beautiful woman, America, asks, “Johnny won’t you get me some popcorn?” He hops out the car to get the popcorn pronto, but the minute his back is turned - she hops into “a foreign sports car”, i.e., Vietnam.

Johnny is called a “coward” for leaving America at the drive-in that night, but Johnny responds:

“I’d rather have names thrown at me than to fight for a thing that ain’t right.”

As ex U.S. Army mechanic (drafted) Prine reasons in the chorus:

“I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory

And awake in the dawn’s early light

But much to my surprise

When I opened my eyes

I was a victim of the great compromise”

--

As for the process of writing, Prine has some definite suggestions.

“The best songs don’t change much when you’re writing them. They come to you and if you don’t write it down you’re a fool.”

Writing as a kid to get away from the world, this simple virtuoso is also quoted as saying:

“The song is the boss. I’m a minimalist, maybe I give it a nudge this way or that…what comes out of the debris is important.”

He adds:

“Try to give the listener some ownership. Give them some awareness of what you are trying to do…give the listener some space…..”

Thank you, John Prine, you’ve always given me the space and so much more.

-(30)-

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