JOHN PRINE AT THE GRAMMY MUSEUM

WEDNESDAY, MAY 16, 2018 - 8:00pm

AN UNASSUMING AMERICAN MASTER

By Ross Altman, PhD

John Prine Tree of Forgiveness album coverWhere do you find greatness on a Wednesday night in downtown Los Angeles, when neither the Lakers nor the Dodgers are playing? Wander over to the Grammy Museum and take a listen to two-time Grammy-winning folk singer/songwriter John Prine, in town for a concert Friday night at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel. He is here to be interviewed by Grammy Director Scott Goldman, for a walk down memory lane where no questions are off-limits, and then to sing a few songs and introduce his new album The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of new songs in thirteen years. Were it any other songwriter besides Bob Dylan and the recently reviewed Eric Andersen the anticipation would hardly be worth the long drive during rush hour to get to Olympic and Figueroa; but considering that John Prine is virtually the only songwriter worthy of being put in that company, I was quite happy to make the drive. His songs plumb the depths of human suffering and hope, the heights of humor and satire like Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore and uncanny ability to weave through the broken dreams of a Vietnam veteran like Sam Stone, a desperate housewife like the Angel From Montgomery, and the lonely outcast like the old folks in Hello In There. . “What is the new album about?” asks Goldman; “pork chops, love and mortality.” It doesn’t get more basic than that.

To think that Prine could still write songs like his best from 1971, including the timeless classic he wrote for his father Paradise:

Daddy, won’t you take me back to Mulenberg County

Down by the green river where Paradise lay

I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking

Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

is almost too much to ask, but he buried himself in a dark Nashville hotel room where he slept all day and wrote all night until he had the ten songs he needed to make the record. The revelation that unfolded from his spirited conversation with Scott Goldman was that it wasn’t his idea to do it at all. It came from his wife Fiona and children, who bluntly told him, “Daddy, it’s time to make a record.”

You see, like any writer worth his salt, he would do anything to avoid having to write, it’s just too painful to do without a gun to your head. The test of a writer is what you will do with that gun to your head. And what John Prine, who wrote his first song at the age of 14, does—again and again—is rediscover the depth of craft and occasional magic that touch down like a 747 on the runway of your experience and collective unconscious with a pen in your hand and guitar on your shoulder.

Speaking of which, John Prine’s 1968 vintage Brazilian rosewood Martin D-28—fifty years old this year—just twenty-one years younger than he is, was standing opposite my seat in the third row of the Clive Davis Theatre, leaning up against the wall, the perfect subject for photographer Jacki Sackheim, who covered the evening for FolkWorks. His guitar was his only band—and only joined him onstage after the rhapsodic interview that left the audience in stitches throughout his account of how he started out as a mailman who only wrote songs in his spare time—much like the grizzled self-describeddirty old man” poet Charles Bukowski became a poet while delivering mail.

Photo copyright by jacki sackheim-2018
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Only when Prine started making more money performing his songs did he leave his day job—but it never really left him, as witnessed by a recent collection of his best-known early songs called The Mailman Delivers.

Before he walked up on to the stage from the side entrance in back of the theatre I stuck up a conversation with a young man sitting directly behind me—Dylan Champion. He was seeing Prine live for the first time, he said, but had grown up on his music from the beginning—one of his favorite Prine songs was The Great Compromise. The enthusiasm in his eyes and voice told me all you need to know about Prine’s profound connection to his audience. He was thrilled to be there. We said farewell at the end of the evening~ both grateful for the time we had spent.

One of the new songs speaks to the anti-scientific obsession of the current administration—filled with climate change deniers: The Lonely Friends of Science. But the surprise is that it doesn’t get involved in the most current scientific controversy—rather Prine spends a considerable part of the conversation bringing up the plight of Pluto—who was demoted from a planet to an asteroid—and then when he was finally brought back into the solar system was nonetheless reduced to a “dwarf planet.” Prine always take the side of the underdog, and in this case it was Pluto. Like every great artist, Prine sees with his own eyes.

Another revealing moment came when he was asked whether he had been tempted to write a specifically political song about the president. “Well,” replied Prine, “I certainly tried, but it didn’t get very far. It was to be called Dear Mr. President; I realized that it would be best to approach it with a sense of humor—but I didn’t get past the first verse when I just started ranting against the president and did not want to go down that road. So I abandoned it.”

My favorite story of how a particular song came to be written concerned the song Bonnie Raitt turned into a hit Angel From Montgomery which Joan Baez also recorded a powerful version of on her country album One Day At a Time, the one she dedicated to her husband at the time, draft resistor David Harris. John Prine was talking about songs he had co-written and what it was like. So he let us in on the Holstein brothers Fred and Eddie, who owned the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. That’s a venerable place that is the Mecca for all things folk in Chicago—much like McCabe’s in Santa Monica and the Claremont Folk Music Center out here—where I spent many nights while teaching high school on the south side of Chicago—my last teaching job before I made the break and became a full-time folk singer.

Prine was walking with Eddie and he was asking Prine about writing a song together—which Prine had been known to do with Steve Goodman—with whom he wrote The 20th Century Is Almost Over in 1985—based on the Lead Belly spiritual Meeting At the Building (Soon Be Over) well before it was almost over. So Prine asked Holstein what he had in mind. Eddie replied, “How about something about old people~ and how they become isolated and alone?” Prine thought it over and said, “Well, I think I’ve already written that song (Hello In There), and I doubt I have anything more to say on the subject.” So Holstein replied, “Well, why don’t you suggest something?” Prine thought about it and said, “Well, how about a song about a woman who feels a lot older than she is?” Holstein said he didn’t see anything there that he could feel his way into. So Prine thanked him for his time and went back home and wrote Angel From Montgomery :

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry

Make me a poster from an old rodeo

Just give me one thing that I can hold on to

To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

and the devastating last line:

How the hell can a person go to work in the morning

And come home in the ev’ning and have nothing to say.

That to me is a great insight into a great songwriter~ had he never had that conversation with Ed Holstein he might never have written that song—one of his very best. And conversely, had Holstein taken him up on his suggestion he likewise would never have written it—or it would have become a different song. So thanks to Holstein both suggesting that they write about getting older, and then walking away from Prine’s adaptation of his idea, we got one of the great songs in his repertoire—which he could only have written alone. That’s a window into the mystery of the creative process~ and an inspiration to anyone who takes songwriting seriously.

After performing two songs from his new album, Come On Home, which he sang on the Stephen Colbert Late Night show recently~ and a comic masterpiece with the strange title Egg and Daughter Night—1967, Lincoln, Nebraska (Crazy Bone), that’s the song Prine comes back to in his three-song set after his illuminating and enlightening conversation with Scott Goldman, and closes out his appearance with—in his usual understated conversational style of singing to complement his spoken-word style of songwriting, it’s all of a piece. In the key of F#, capo on the 2nd fret playing “E,” his guitar playing is warm and syncopated finger-style accompaniment that brings out the best in both his melodies and lyrics. He revealed another hard-won insight into the art of both lyric and tune when he said how he first noticed that with both Steve Goodman and Kris Kristofferson you didn’t need to hear the song or see it notated to know the melody. Prine emphasized that they were so well written you could pick out the melody from the words alone. Prine was so generous in his praise of them both he said that he took from them his realization that he has followed ever since: make every syllable count—every syllable should have its own note—and the melody should sound inevitable. In other words, for John Prine the melody grows out of the lyric—the sound grows out of the sense. That may not be the only way to write a song—for some writers—and especially some teams like Rogers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe—the melody will precede the lyrics which will try to figure into the melody—as E.Y. “Yip” Harburg did so brilliantly with Over the Rainbow—which he wrote to Harold Arlen’s pre-existing tune. But for John Prine—who is a storyteller in song—it was a graduate seminar in songwriting craft to hear him put the lyrics first—without shortchanging the melody in the least. One can say this without doubt due to the fact that his melodies are as instantly recognizable as his lyrics—if you hear the first four notes of Sam Stone it’s like hearing the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony—you know immediately the work of art they come from~ and you hear the words in the same breath:

Sam Stone

Came home

despite their simplicity. That is genius.

What a joy to listen to this unassuming American master in the intimate Clive Davis Theatre at the Grammy Museum. He was utterly delightful in paying tribute to his late friend Steve Goodman—whose guitar-playing virtuosity he lovingly contrasted with his own comparatively basic style—“With Goodman he covered every single fret on the fret-board—all the way to the top. My guitar never needs a fret job—I just play in G on the first three.” And yet, again despite his simplicity because of his subtle finger-style syncopation, one hears the underlying complexity of his music.

He brought only the Martin D-28 to this interview and brief performance, but in a full concert on Friday you will hear his Gibson J-200 as well, which he exchanges on stage with the dreadnaught—the Gibson for rhythm guitar (playing behind his band) and the Martin for lead finger-style accompaniment. If you make it to the Theatre at the Ace Hotel pay close attention to his blonde J-200 as well~ for you will be looking at a beautiful endangered species—since Gibson just filed for Chapter 11 protection for bankruptcy—five million dollars in debt due to extensive mismanagement at the top—running one of America’s great companies into the ground. Prine’s great vintage Gibson J-200—the same model played by the great Reverend Gary Davis, Elvis, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan (on the Nashville Skyline album cover) and Stephen Stills—may be one of the last you will see on a big stage. Enjoy it while you can.

And the same may be said for John Prine—a two-time cancer survivor whose courage is palpable and admirable in his refusal to quit performing, writing and now recording again despite the years of treatments he has endured. We are so lucky to still have him with us—creator of one of the great bodies of work in American song. Standard Songs for Average People he unpretentiously called one of his middle-period albums. He put a lot of country standards on it to justify the title—for his artistry is anything but standard. Roll on, John!

Thank you Kimber for the press pass~ and to Jacki Sackheim for the great photos!

Ross Altman brings his own Gibson J-200 (and longneck banjo and 12-string guitar) to the Claremont Folk Festival on Saturday May 19 at Pomona College for a workshop on protest songs (at 2:00pm) and Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival on Sunday May 20 for a tribute to “Woody, Lead and Pete” (the Railroad Stage at 4:30pm).

Thank you Kimber for the press pass~ and to Jacki Sackheim for the great photos!

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.