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A Salute To John Prine, A Meticulous Craftsman With A Gift For Detail


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, we remember songwriter, singer and guitarist John Prine, who died Tuesday from complications of the coronavirus. He was 73. Prine's best-known songs include "Angel From Montgomery," "Paradise," "Sam Stone" and "Hello In There." Among the many people who recorded his songs are Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt and Bette Midler. In 2016, he was honored by the writers organization PEN for lyrics of literary excellence. Last year, he was inducted into the Songwriting Hall of Fame. Terry spoke to him in 2018 after the release of his album "The Tree Of Forgiveness," his first album of new songs in 13 years. He was touring at the time and had made a remarkable comeback from two bouts with cancer. We'll listen to that interview on today's show. But first, our rock critic Ken Tucker has this remembrance of John Prine.


JOHN PRINE: (Singing) Well, tonight I'll throw a party and I know who I'll invite. There's a strange and lonely person with whom I'll spend this night. There'll be no sad memories to haunt me till I die. In that room, there'll be a bottle and me, myself and I. In that room, there'll be a bottle and me, myself and I.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: With his solemn croak of a voice and his carefully cultivated habit of dropping the G's at the ends of his words, John Prine always came across as a very cagey good old boy, singing and playing songs that he wanted you to think he'd tossed off the night before with a good buzz on and before the hangover took hold. In fact, of course, Prine was a meticulous craftsman with a gift for novelistic detail.


PRINE: (Singing) Well, it got so hot last night, I swear you couldn't hardly breathe. Heat lightning burnt the sky like alcohol. I sat on the porch without my shoes and I watched the cars roll by as the headlights raced to the corner of the kitchen wall. Mama, dear, your boy is here far across the sea waiting for that sacred core that burns inside of me. And I feel a storm...

TUCKER: That's "Mexican Home," one of the greatest songs from a great album, 1973's "Sweet Revenge." A Chicago mailman whose earliest songs caught the ears of Kris Kristofferson and got him signed to Atlantic Records, Prine released his debut album in 1971. He was immediately saddled with the blessing that was also a curse - praise for being the new Bob Dylan. Back then, anyone who strummed a guitar, puffed on a harmonica and wrote his own songs had to endure comparisons to Dylan. But a year later, Bette Midler recorded a hit version of "Hello In There," Prine's unsentimental sketch of old age, and he was well on his way to establishing a distinctiveness and eccentric originality that served him well for five decades.


PRINE: (Singing) From the bells of St. Mary to the count of Monte Cristo, nothing can stop, nothing can stop, nothing can stop the sins of Memphisto. Sally used to play with her hula hoops. Now she tells her problems to therapy groups. Grampa's on the front lawn staring at a rake wondering if his marriage was a terrible mistake. I'm sitting on the front steps drinking orange crush wondering if it's possible for me to still blush.

TUCKER: Prine's lyrics hold up to close scrutiny of his technical prowess. He took a journeyman's pride in unifying metaphor and metrical precision even as he also indulged in intentionally scrambled syntax, loopy non sequiturs and crammed syllables in short lines. But Prine was no show off. He also knew when to rein in his verbal skills to speak with the kind of stark simplicity that makes "If You Don't Want My Love" one of the most moving songs I know.


PRINE: (Singing) If you don't want my love, if you don't want my love, if you don't want my love I know who I'll give it to. If you don't want my love, if you don't want my love, if you don't want my love anymore.

TUCKER: He liked honky tonk country music, rhythm and blues and the funkier side of folk music, a mixture that rendered his own compositions unclassifiable, catchy as hell and not especially commercial. He won two Grammys in the folk category and pioneered the independent label movement in Nashville with the 1981 formation of his own label, Oh Boy Records. For a guy who came across as a guy's guy, it's significant that women connected strongly to his melodies and lyrics, as can be heard in the way Bonnie Raitt sings "Angel From Montgomery" and Iris DeMent sings her duet with Prine "In Spite Of Ourselves." In 2018, he closed out his album "The Tree Of Forgiveness" with a song called "When I Get To Heaven." It's a typically cheerful, puckish description of what a John Prine liberated from Earth would do as soon as he dies. I hope that's the good time he's having now.


PRINE: When I get to heaven, I'm gonna shake God's hand, thank him for more blessings than one man can stand. Then I'm gonna get a guitar and start a rock 'n' roll band, check into a swell hotel. Ain't the afterlife grand? (Singing) And then I'm gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale. Yeah, I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long. I'm gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl 'cause this old man is going to town.


PRINE: Then as God is my witness, I'm getting back into show business. I'm gonna open up a nightclub called the Tree of Forgiveness and forgive everybody that ever done me any harm. Why, I might even invite a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics, buy them a pint of Smithwick's (ph) and smother them with my charm. (Singing) 'Cause then I'm gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale. Yeah, I'm gonna smoke a cigarette that's nine miles long. I'm gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl 'cause this old man is going to town.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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