It's tempting to tag John Prine as a "novelty song" writer -- which he sometimes is -- but tragic ballads such as "Sam Stone," and "Hello In There" go way, way beyond that label. One of the first and most skillful of the early-'70s singer/songwriter set, Prine was also one of the most relaxed, and his albums had a far less belabored, journeymanlike feel than, say, Paul Seibel or one of them fellows. Prine's songs generally take a world-weary tone, graciously forgiving all the faults and failings of his cast of characters. Over the years, he's taken on sort of an elder-statesmanlike role, sheparding the careers of twangy up-and-comers such as Nanci Griffith and Iris DeMent, and started his own record label to give himself and his friends some shelter from the storm. And, of course, he's been the living, breathing ideal of the folky troubadour -- one of the best live performers out on the road. Here's a quick look at his catalog...
John Prine "John Prine" (Atlantic, 1971)
Straight out the gate, Prine pegged a home run, an album that remains a classic, packed with so many great songs that it almost boggles the mind. At the time, the fashion among music critics was to tar all new singer-songwriters with comparison to the great Bob Dylan; Prine defied that comparison by being so goddamn country, and so solidly his own man, tossing off witty, soulful character sketches with a wink and a nod, and a charming gosh-heck lack of pretension that Dylan (and his many acolytes...) would have been hard-pressed to have managed. A lot of the songs of this first album -- "Hello In There", "Illegal Smile", "Sam Stone", "Angel From Montgomery" -- regularly appear on his best-of collections, but really you'd be short-changing yourself if you didn't get the original, whole album. It also includes "Paradise", which has long been on my list of perfectly-written songs. Also includes Prine's best buddy, the late Steve Goodman, as a harmony vocalist and acoustic guitarist. Highly recommended.
John Prine "Diamonds In The Rough" (Atlantic, 1972)
Arguably, Prine may have had a rough time following up his dazzling debut; far fewer of these songs are considered classics in the Prine ouvre, but with gems such as "Souvenirs" and "The Great Compromise" in the mix, what's there to complain about, really? The title track is actually a Carter Family cover, showing (in case anyone wondered) Prine's real country roots.
John Prine "Sweet Revenge" (Atlantic, 1973)
This album has some of my favorite Prine songs, such as "Please Don't Bury Me" and "Grandpa Was A Carpenter," along with time-honored crowd-pleasers like "Dear Abby"... At the same time, it's clear that Prine had settled into a novelty writer mode, more frequently straining at the musical edges... Still, his band has developed a crack professionalism and were just about the best thing going on the alt-country scene of the early '70s. This one's a classic -- highly recommended!
John Prine "Common Sense" (Atlantic, 1975)
John Prine "Bruised Orange" (Asylum, 1978)
Although the jittery moments are a bit more on edge here than on other albums, the catchiness quotient is also up quite a bit. I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether the more upbeat, bouncy tracks are toss-offs or not; I just know that I love 'em, 'cause they're fun to listen to and sing along with. Several of my favorite songs on here, including "Iron Ore Betty", "There She Goes" and "Aw Heck", are regularly omitted from his best-of collections (including the fab Rhino set listed below), so I would recommend anyone checking into Prine's past should also check this album out in its entirety. Another cool, must-have rekkid.
John Prine "Pink Cadillac" (Asylum, 1979)
John Prine "Storm Windows" (Asylum, 1980)
John Prine "Aimless Love" (Oh Boy, 1984)
Awesome... If I were pressed, really hard, to pick my favorite John Prine record, this would be it. The gentleness and affection with which Prine approaches human weakness is quite moving, as is his skill expressing it. This is a mature and finely crafted album, with mystifying songs of pathetic love ("Maureen"), mildly scolding morality tales ("Unwed Fathers"), a patent-pending Prine-style nonsense song ("Bottomless Lake"), and the ethereal, life-affirming lullaby, "Only Love." Prine took five years to organize his life so that he could make the records he wanted to make, and the results straight out the gate were pretty impressive. Highly, highly recommended. A gem.
John Prine "German Afternoons" (Oh Boy, 1986)
Another excellent album, more upbeat and playful that Aimless Love, and more overtly country, with an acoustic-pickin' and pedal steel sound that's purty durn sweet. The musicianship is fab throughout, with super-solid pickers such as Sam Bush, Jim Rooney and Roy Huskey, Jr. joining Prine's usual stable of players. Highlights include the new "Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness," a remake of "Paradise" and soulful cover versions of the Carter Family's "Lulu Walls" and Leon Payne's "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me." Just the kind of low-key masterpiece that Prine excels at...
John Prine "John Prine Live" (Oh Boy, 1988)
Once again, he charms us all with his aw-shucks, gosh-heck, down-to-earth charm, which comes through even more loud and clear on this modest, stripped-down live set. Sure, you've heard plenty of his studio albums; here's a great chance to appreciate another part of his appeal: his legendary prowess and laconic wit as a touring troubadour. Recommended!
John Prine "The Missings Years" (Oh Boy, 1991)
John Prine "Lost Dogs And Mixed Blessings" (Oh Boy, 1995)
John Prine "A John Prine Christmas" (Oh Boy, 1995)
(PS - if you like country Christmas records, I review a whole bunch of them on my hillbilly holiday page... )
John Prine "Live On Tour" (Oh Boy, 1997)
Live tracks recorded at a variety of venues, from coast to coast... I like the more stripped-down solo acoustic stuff, though the tunes with a full band backing him up don't do as much for me. It's always nice to hear him interact with his fans, though, and they with him.
John Prine/Various Artists "In Spite Of Ourselves" (Oh Boy, 1999)
The craggy-voice Prine has been known to sing a duet or two in his time -- but who would have imagined that a whole album's worth would be SO WONDERFUL? Joined by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless and Connie Smith, Prine has just put out what may be my favorite country album of the year... The song selection is flawless, ranging from straight-ahead weepers like Don Everley's "So Sad" or Felice Bryant's "We Could," to goofy oldies like "The Jet Set" and "Milwaukee Here I Come". The arrangements -- particularly the pedal steel by Dan Dugmore -- are picture perfect; understated and expressive but wholly in service of the lyrics. Prine proves a point he's made many times over the years, that sometimes the secret to good singing is just keeping thing simple. In his unpretentious manner, Prine's ability to connect with the nine women co-starring on here is phenomenal. The three numbers with Iris DeMent are standouts: I had kind of let DeMent drift off my radar the last few years, but it was a real treat hearing the simplicity and sincerity of her vocals again -- and her delivery on the goofy, nudge-nudge wink-wink of the title track (the only Prine original on the album...) is absolutely adorable. Another eyebrow-raiser is the inclusion of two tracks with Melba Montgomery, an awesome old-timer who I've been wondering "whatever happened to her?" about for a while... The only sour notes on here are with Celtic diva, Dolores Keane, who has become inexplicably stuffy in the last few years... But really, I have no complaints -- in fact, I can't get this disc out of my stereo! And why would I want to?
John Prine "Souvenirs" (Oh Boy, 2000)
This may be Prine's most sincerely downcast album, as he goes through his back pages at a crawl, mostly accompanied by a solo guitar, or small acoustic ensemble. It's somewhat glum, but also quite soulful, and interestingly enough many of his oldies but goodies take on a new resonance, as Prine is at last the grizzled old-timer that he's portrayed himself as all these years. His new recording of "Angel From Montgomery", for example, has a gum-toothed authenticity to it that lives up to the lyrics in a way that neither he nor Bonnie Raitt could do back when they was whippersnappers. The more I listen to this, the more it grows on me...
John Prine "Fair & Square" (Oh Boy, 2005)
The great John Prine has found his voice again, both literally and figuratively... After battling with a debilitating throat cancer, Prine is back in fine form, with his first all-new studio album in nearly a decade, and one of the finest albums of his career. Prine's gentle, forgiving embrace of human failures and foibles comes through loud and clear, along with his trademark world-weary, warped wisdom and his ability to craft unexpected turns of phrase, spinning the listener along, wondering just how each stanza will end. This is his best and most heartfelt album since 1984's Aimless Love, with Prine present and engaged on every single song. The sweet, rich accompaniment dips into the country stylings -- pedal steel, etc. -- that Prine set aside for a while, and sets a lulling, pleasant tone; songs like "Taking A Walk" and "I Hate It When That Happens To Me" invite repeat listens, offering the narcotizing pleasures of Prine's familiar, now-grandfatherly artistic presence. As is his wont, Prine invites a few guest along for the ride, notably Alison Krauss and newcomer Mindy Smith, who harmonize on a few tunes. One song may stand out like a sore thumb: in "Some Humans Ain't Human," Prine takes an uncharacteristic dive into blunt political commentary, zeroing in on the hypocrisy and heartlessness of George W. Bush, skewering his bullying, blustering administration with a scathing denunciation that's framed by low-key, matter-of-fact simplicity... Playing the everyman, Prine doesn't try to be clever and arch like Phil Ochs, or as impassioned and painfully earnest as many politico-folkies strain to sound; he just seems saddened by the insincerity and lameness of Bush and the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight... Prine doesn't dwell on it either, he just says he thinks these guys are jerks, and then moves on to another song. Thuh End. Politics aside, this is an excellent album, with a soft, elegant feel and a warmth that fans will find welcoming. Recommended!
John Prine & Mac Wiseman "Standard Songs For Average People" (Oh Boy, 2007)
When you see these two guys together, and then hear them singing in such perfect synch, a lightbulb will pop up above your head and you'll think, Oh, of course... Duh!! Although even the youthful John Prine always had a limited vocal range, the expressiveness and depth of feeling he's poured into his every performance has a lot in common with bluegrass elder Mac Wiseman, a superior tenor stylist who knew how to wring not just sentiment, but real, moving feeling out of all the songs he tackled. Here, they swap verses on a flock of their favorite songs, a delightful set of country and pop oldies, stuff ranging from hard country tunes like "Pistol Packin' Mama" and "I Love You Because" and a mellowed version of Charlie Feathers/Elvis kookazoid rockabilly oldie, "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" to fanciful covers of pop standards such as Patti Page's hit, "Old Cape Cod" and Bing Crosby's "Where The Blue Of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day)"... It's a wonderful nostalgia trip, with two loveable old farts crooning their hearts out, in a delightful musical and cultural unison. The spirit of this album is perfectly captured in their version of the Bob Wills evergreen, "Don't Be Ashamed Of Your Age"; if you like heartsongs and sentiment sung with feeling, then this disc'll be a real treat.
John Prine "In Person And On Stage" (Oh Boy!, 2010)
(Produced by John Prine)
One of the great troubadours of the singer-songwriter-big lovable goofball folkie scene, the venerable John Prine is, of course, a brilliant live performer, a guy who set the bar that others strive to attain. Jovial, self-effacing and deeply funny, he's like your all-time favorite uncle or maybe the one guy at the party that you'd really love to get trapped with all evening long. He's a warm, familiar presence, and this new live set captures him at hs best, singing old favorites such as "Unwed Fathers," "The Bottomless Lake," "Spanish Pipedream" and "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore." There are also a slew of highpowered guests, including Emmylou Harris on a nice version of "Angel From Montgomery" and Iris Dement, who duets on two tunes, as well as Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins and some instrumental ooomph from the Kane/Welch/Kaplan trio, on the album's closer, Prine's always-timely mining anthem, "Paradise." Americana music doesn't get better than this, and while a lot of this music may already be on your radar, it's still a mighty fine album. Be a great gift, too, for anyone you want to turn on to the magic of Prine.
John Prine "Prime Prine" (Atlantic, 1976)
For many years, the standard Prine anthology, this is indeed quite a nice disc. There are inevitable and tragic omissions, but if you want a solid overview of his early years, this is pretty darn good.
John Prine "Great Days: The John Prine Anthology" (Rhino, 1993)
This collection is incredible; almost everything essential is there (again, there are a few unfortunate omissions, such as "Grandpa Was A Carpenter" and "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore," but pound-for-pound it's nearly impossible to find a collection by any artist that's this damn good. The inclusion of live versions of several songs -- "Angel From Montgomery" and "Souvenirs" -- makes it a necessity to also pick up a few of the original albums (or the old Prime Prine best-of...), and even though this anthology includes several key songs off his great indie album, Aimless Love, I'd strongly recommend you get that record as well... Still, this 2-CD set rocks. Highly recommended!
Jeffrey Foucault "Shoot The Moon Right Between The Eyes -- A Collection" (Signature Sounds, 2009)
Various Artists "BROKEN HEARTS AND DIRTY WINDOWS: SONGS OF JOHN PRINE" (Oh Boy, 2010)
Various Artists "THE POSTMAN DELIVERS: A CHICAGO MUSICIANS' TRIBUTE TO JOHN PRINE, v.1" (Lost In America, 2010)
Various Artists "TRIBUTE TO STEVE GOODMAN" (Red Pajamas, 1985)
A live concert honoring Prine's good buddy from the Chicago folk scene, the late Steve Goodman. It's both an all-star and a non-star event, with John Prine, Bryan Bowers, David Bromberg, Arlo Guthrie, John Hartford and others paying tribute to one of the humble greats of the '70s folk scene.
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