John Prine: ‘Things were going so good, I was afraid to screw it up with a new record’

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John Prine: ‘I had no idea I worked that well with a deadline.’ Photograph: PR

The singer-songwriter’s career has spanned almost 50 years. In his first album since 2005, Prine gets reflective and romantic while avoiding any mention of the president

04 April 2018 | Jon Bernstein| The Guardian

“John Prine was sitting in a boat in the middle of a river when he realized he had an idea for a song.

The idea came the way ideas usually come for Prine: by listening. This time, he was listening to his fishing buddy, John Earl, a former guitar tech for the Everly Brothers, tell him a story about growing up in Norfolk, Nebraska, in the 40s and 50s.

“He told me that on Thursday nights, him and his buddies used to go to the roller rink and the egg farmers would come in from the country and they’d drop their daughters off, go sell their eggs, and then these big city guys would make time with the farmer’s daughters,” says Prine, 71. The weekly event, Prine says, was formerly known as Egg and Daughter Night: “I just thought the title of it was so good.”

Prine is laughing now, still amazed and amused by this curious slice of Americana, the very sort of oddball premise he’s used to stage the heart-wrenching, thigh-slapping quirky folk dramas he’s been writing for the past 50 years.

“It’s a very American story,” he says, as if to explain why he was so drawn to the anecdote in the first place.

The resulting song, Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone) serves as one of the centerpieces to The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine’s first record of original material since 2005.

Across the LP, Prine blends goofball wit and aw-shucks surrealism to conjure the ordinary and the profound, absurdist whimsy and existential despair, laughter and tears. These juxtapositions have long been the songwriter’s trademark, and on his latest, he places references to Easter eggs and a “funky sushi bar” among lyrics about despondency and disaster.

“Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree,” is how Bob Dylan once explained Prine’s music. Prine himself began earning Dylan comparisons when he released his 1971 self-titled debut album, which included folk classics like Sam Stone and Angel From Montgomery, but the Chicago singer-songwriter quickly forged his own path.

The cult favorite folk albums he released over the next several decades – 1972’s Diamonds in the Rough, 1978’s Bruised Orange, 1991’s The Missing Years, and 2005’s Fair & Square among them – used the plainspoken language and the everyday diction of country music to sing about life’s solemnity and silliness. If Dylan sings Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Prine sings Knockin’ on Your Screen Door, a country romp, full of defeated heartbreak and honky-tonk desertion, that opens his new album.

Ever since Fair & Square won the 2005 Grammy for best contemporary folk album, something curious has been happening to Prine, and even he can’t explain it. “The number of people at shows have lately been doubling or triple for no particular reason,” he says.

As singer-songwriters like Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson have ushered the roots-country music of Nashville into a formidable Spotify-era alternative pop genre, Prine, who’s lived in the city for almost 40 years, has becoming something of a spiritual godfather to an entire younger generation of artists.

“Anytime a line is not working for me … I’ll think: WWJPD. What would John Prine do,” Kacey Musgraves said in 2016.

Over the past decade, Prine has only sparingly worked on new music, meeting up occasionally with old songwriting partners like Pat McLaughlin and Keith Sykes to toss around ideas. “Things were going so good,” he says, “I was afraid to screw it up by putting a record out.” He did not begin work in earnest on his new record until last year, when his son, Jody, and wife, Fiona, who together manage Prine’s own label, Oh Boy Records, scheduled him studio time with Dave Cobb, the go-to producer for today’s generation of roots-minded country singers.

“They gave me a deadline, so I booked myself into a fancy hotel in downtown Nashville,” he says. “I took 10 boxes of unfinished lyrics and four guitars. I must have looked like Howard Hughes checking into the place. I spend so much time on the road, so I just seem to operate better in a hotel. I watched quiz shows all day, ordered a bunch of room service, and stayed up until three in the morning writing every day. I just holed up there for a week until I came out with 10 songs. I had no idea I worked that well with a deadline.”

Written just a few years after Prine survived his second bout with cancer in 2013, The Tree of Forgiveness, an album populated with reflective songs about mortality, love and family, is hard not to hear as one of the most dearly personal records of Prine’s long career.

John Prine
 Photograph: John Darwin Kurc

Egg & Daughter Nite, which features an ageing narrator holed up in a nursing home, is just one of several new songs that deal with old age. When I Get to Heaven is a meditation – humorous and heartfelt – on the singer’s grand afterlife plans; Boundless Love is an ode to everlasting companionship; Summer’s End, the album’s stunning centerpiece, offers up a heartbreaking metaphor for old age.

“There’s a natural sadness with that song because I do think about me and John,” says Fiona Prine, who married John in 1996 and now serves as his manager. “I think, ‘OK, we have had two seasons together, and we are going into the third season.”

To hear Prine tell it, though, he was simply trying to come up with 10 songs. When Fiona first mentioned the strong emotional thematic bent to the new songs to her husband, he pleaded ignorance.

“He honest to God looked at me, and he wasn’t being facetious, and said, ‘What are you talking about?’” recalled Fiona. “But that, to me, is the integrity of his art. There’s no contrivance, no unnecessary premeditation.”

“I didn’t think about it until then,” says Prine. “It’s probably luck, more than anything else, that these songs came together. These must be subjects that I like to write about and keep coming back to. That’s the best I can figure, without going to the psychiatrist.”

One of the record’s most striking songs is God Only Knows, a song he first started writing with Phil Spector in the 70s. Prine has satirized and made light of organized religion throughout his entire career, from 1971’s anti-jingoism anthem Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore to 1991’s Jesus the Missing Years, but God Only Knows is a moving devotional, complete with excerpts of the child’s prayer (“I pray the lord / My soul to keep / If I should die / Before I wake / I praise the lord / My soul to take”).

“I think, personally, if I had grown up in a cave, I still would’ve known that there’s a God,” he says. “I would have been the guy that drew a picture on the wall on the cave. I’ve never been much for religion, but I think I got a big spiritual connection. I’ve just always felt connected that way.” If there’s one project he’s always wanted to do, he says, it’s a full album of covers of religious country gospel tunes he’s loved since he was a child.

“The work of John the artist is happening all the time,” says Fiona. “When he sings ‘the world will end most any day / but if it does, that’s OK / ’cause I don’t live here anyway,’ that’s true. He is somewhere else most of the time.”

Whether he’s thinking up ideas for songs on a boat or at the bar, Prine’s songwriting springs from a gathering of phrases and half-formed ideas that eventually coalesce into a song. He writes by trusting what amuses him, by pursuing the fragmented oddities and abstract impressions that inform his singular way of seeing the world.

The songwriter says that his attempt to write something directly political on the new record went nowhere. “If I know I’m writing something overtly political, I prefer to use humor. That way it might have a chance of being heard by people of different political persuasions, whereas otherwise you’re just preaching to the choir,” he says. “I tried to write something about Trump – one was called Dear Mr President, but I found myself going into a rant in the first verse. I think the real reason I didn’t write a song about him was that I secretly kept hoping he’d be gone before I could get into the studio.”

 

Prine’s mind works so uniquely that it can be difficult to follow the artistic leaps he makes when explaining the process behind his work. Towards the end of our interview, he explains that he’s about to go cook tacos for dinner (“I use those El Paso kits. Crunchy shell”) but before he says goodbye, he wants to try to explain the deeper emotional core of When I Get To Heaven, which, as he sees it, is tied to the meaning behind the album’s title.

“Years ago, Fiona and I used to go this restaurant about 30 miles from Dublin called the Tree of Idleness. I liked the idea of ‘the Tree of Something’. I thought it was a good name, the Tree of Idleness. That’s a fancy name for being lazy,” he says.

“So, ‘the Tree of Forgiveness’ was a phrase I came up with about six or seven years ago. I fell in love with that image, and I tried writing a song called The Tree of Forgiveness but it just didn’t go anywhere. I finally crammed it into When I Get to Heaven. It became the name of the bar that the guy opens up in heaven. I had this constant thought about how the toughest thing was forgiveness, and really the toughest thing, for most people, was to forgive themselves. So, I thought, in terms of places you can go where you could tell yourself that you are forgiven, there’d be a bar. And then I thought that if you get to heaven, and all these people that are all such Christians are gonna be there, you’re going to need a drink.”

John Prine has one more thing he wants to add.

“Sometimes,” he says, “I think too much.”

  • The Tree of Forgiveness is released on 13 April

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