Pastoral Prine

Seeing John Prine the other night on Governor’s Island with Stereophile's Stephen Mejias was a fairly profound experience, owing to Prine’s strange, elegiac tone. It may be that he wasn’t down with the venue (a windy island at night) or that he was simply tired (he looked it), but almost everything he sung, even the fun ones like, “Please Don’t Bury Me,” had an odd sadness clinging to it. I tried not to think about how Prine beat cancer back in 1998. The first time I saw him backstage after the cancer had been cut and radiated out of his throat, he cracked a smile and chirped, “Well Robert, this is what happens when you start smoking when you’re 14. What did I expect?” Thankfully his voice and his irascible disposition returned undiminished by the illness. He’s lost some tissue in his neck and his voice did indeed get a little growlier, but overall he was extremely lucky. I prefer to ascribe his lonely tone last Friday to the fact that he’s been singing some of those songs for 40 years and just decided to give them a different emotional bent in New York. Truly though I have never seen a Prine show that wasn’t laced with jokes, spot on wisecracks and sly references to the current world history. And never have I heard one of his signature songs “Donald and Lydia,” done so beautifully, its chorus lines turned into a near prayer: “But dreaming just comes natural Like the first breath from a baby, Like sunshine feeding daisies, Like the love hidden deep in your heart.”

This encounter with one of my favorite artists in all the genres and all the gin joints in the world, set me into a frenzy of Prine album listening over the rest of the weekend and continuing until today. Because two of Prine’s first three records were such monster songwriting collections, John Prine (1970) and Sweet Revenge (1973), his later work gets short shrift. For a different side of this master craftsman, check out the three albums he made for Asylum: Bruised Orange(1978), Pink Cadillac(1979) and Storm Windows(1980). They all show Prine in his mid-Thirties, one who’s past his initial batch of songwriting ideas and over the burst of success that came with those first records, and is digging in and fashioning a career. His lyrics get ever more accomplished the more you listen. And Pink Cadillac which was made in Memphis, is a weird change of recording venues that didn’t quite work, but remains interesting nonetheless.

john abramson's picture

Perhaps, the "odd sadness"that you mention was idiosyncratic to the particular performance. Prine has a rare gift of artistic communication. You were privileged to have viewed and heard some seepage of repressed feelings of mortality and aging that affects all humans, but are rarely commercially viable.

Alan Matheson's picture

I saw him in the late 70's just John and his acoustic guitar, after those first two albums he was funny and amazing. Saw him later 80's with a band in Toronto, he was still amazing, played outdoors off the lake, same fitting venue for hearing his voice.I still can't believe how often I listen to all those albums new and old. The re-recording after his surgery on Souvenirs is incredible. But Bruised Orange and the song "Sabu visits the twin cities" still cracks me up the most...I hope he keeps going even if he gets cranky, sad, crazy or whatever. He is a strumming poet.

Donna's picture

I've been a Prine fan since about a year before he released his first album - when he was doing 2 shows on Fridays & 3 on Saturdays at the 5th Peg on Armitage. There was a $1 cover & 2 drink minimum but you could stay for all the shows. Every performance was a bit different. I remember how blown away I was the first time I heard him. The fact that some of his songs were written when he was still in high school amazed me. We saw him, for the first time in many, many years (raising children as a single mom consumed my time for quite awhile) a couple of months ago when he did a benefit conference for a local organization at his high school which disclose to where I now live. (he told me back in 70 or 71 about his high school English teacher who recognized his gift & encouraged him to write as much as he could). It seems to me that years ago he sang his songs as a young, perceptive person observing the emotions of others but that lately his singing seems more personal - as if he's singing from personal experienc

Brian's picture

It was Robert Baird that turned me on to John Prine with his review of Fair and Square. I didn't feel like he conveyed a real sadness - to me it appeared as if he was somewhat happy with where his life is right now. The album seems fairly upbeat to me, but then there are some more reflective moments. As a result of Baird's review, I purchased Fair and Square and then The Missing Years, and I can see a certain progression from The Missing Years to Fair and Square, but I'm not sure exactly what it is.It seems that highly reflective material is the rage these days as Johnny Cash has several albums released late in life that seem to evoke such feelings. But also, Neil Diamond has done it with 12 Songs, and even Tom Jones with his Praise and Blame. I feel like there is a connection with these three singers in that way.I must say that I've enjoyed all the albums I've mentioned. There's something about the wisdom of years that they convey, but yet there is a certain simplicity there as well.