I have been listening to John Prine since the first day his first album was released. In fact, I learned how to play the guitar listening to that first album. This is the best interview I have read. It turns out that the ‘urban legends’ of his start in the business were actually true! JP
11 June 2019 || Billboard
John Prine‘s ability to weave sublime musical stories around topics that would otherwise seem mundane is a gift that’s propelled his decades-long career and delivered a volume of cherished choruses in the Americana songbook.
From a childhood singing and playing guitar on the front porch of his home in Maywood, Ill., to being discovered by Kris Kristofferson in the Chicago folk revival scene, Prine often has woven social commentary into his music, which has been covered by artists ranging from Bette Midler to Bonnie Raitt to Carly Simon. He’s survived two bouts with cancer and last year delivered one of his most acclaimed albums yet, The Tree of Life — and is back at work on a new collection of original songs.
Ahead of his induction this Thursday (June 13) into the 2019 Songwriters Hall of Fame, Prine looks back on his years of music-making and shares with Billboard what keeps his artistry fresh today: “When I get up in the morning I’m 9 years old,” he says. “I’m not a 72-year-old man until I look in the mirror.”
“Eloquence” is the word that comes up often when peers and fans describe your music. What’s your reaction to that, and where do you think this gift came from?
I didn’t know I was a songwriter at first. I learned how to play the guitar from my older brother, and he taught me three chords and gave me a Carter Family record. I was into rock n’ roll but my brother gave me a Carter Family and an Elizabeth Cotten record. He was into folk music.
So I learned to play my guitar from those two records and what my brother taught me. As soon as I started trying to learn other people’s songs, I would forget the lyrics and so I started making up my own words because it was easier. So that’s what I was doing, just making up my own words for nobody in particular. And once it got pretty comfortable with three chords I learned a couple more and I started writing my own songs at 14. Just to impress girls. I never really thought I had a future in professional songwriting at all. I come from a western suburb of Chicago and I didn’t know anybody who made records.
So did you impress the girls?
I did. And that’s as far as I wanted to go.
But then… you go and get discovered by Kris Kristofferson.
I did, and Kris was hotter than a two-dollar pistol at the time. He had just put his first record out a year before I met him, and he was playing a club in Chicago called the Quiet Knight and my friend Steve Goodman, who was playing all the folk clubs with me, he was opening for Kris. Kris played four nights at the Quiet Knight and every night Steve Goodman tried to get Kris to come over and see his buddy across town. And Kris couldn’t care less at the time. He was a pretty busy guy.
So you were doing your own gigging across town?
Yeah, not the club where Kris was playing. So the last night Goodman hounded him about coming over to see his buddy John, and Kris got in a cab and came over. It was a Sunday night, 2 in the morning, the chairs were on the tables, the waitresses were counting their tips and I was waiting for my paycheck. And Kris came in with two other people. We got four chairs down and I got on the stage right in front of him and sang about seven songs. And then he bought me a beer and asked if I could get back up there and sing those seven again and anything else I wrote.
Do you remember what you sang?
I sang “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There,” “Paradise,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Illegal Smile” — most of the songs on my first record.
Yes, those are a lot of the songs that ended up on your first album, which came out only a year later I think?
It was the same year. It was really a Cinderella story, truly. Especially now that I’ve been in the business for so long and heard so many stories and told people my story. Eventually I went New York with Steve Goodman, and we got off the plane and looked in The Village Voice, and this was total coincidence, and Kris Kristofferson was playing The Bitter End, so we took out suitcases and guitars and went straight to down to The Bitter End. It was my very first time in New York City.
What was that timing, was it soon after you’d met Kris?
About four months after we met. So we get out of the cab and Kris and his band are walking from next door to do their second show at The Bitter End, and Kris says, “You guys are going up on stage for three songs apiece.” All the people in the audience were either record company people or A&R people, and I sang three songs that night — “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone” and “Paradise,” and Jerry Wexler was there and at 10am the next morning Jerry Wexler calls. I hadn’t been in New York 24 hours.
Just an incredible story.
I like to tell young up-and-comers that luck has a good deal to do with it. Luck and timing. But when the luck and timing comes along, you’ve got to have the goods. You’re only going to get that one chance, so you’ve got to have the goods right then and there.
And everything just took off from there. What is your songwriting process, and has it changed much through the years?
I think I know less now than I did back then about songwriting. With me there’s no particular way. I just wait until a song comes along. When I’m co-writing, I use more of a craft approach to it because you’re working with someone else. You can’t just sit there and wait until the lightning strikes when you’re co-writing. So that’s the only difference. But right now on my own, I swear, every song I write on my own I think it’s the last one. Because I just don’t know if I can write another song. Sometimes I have to wait years, and sometimes it’s only a day or a week until the next one comes.
What kinds of thoughts and/or experiences jumpstart a song nowadays?
Like right now, doing the interview, I’m driving over to get a haircut. If I’m doing something else, like driving, I find it opens up the right side of the brain to get the inspiration. But I have to be doing something. I was speaking with a young songwriter who I like a whole lot, Tyler Childers—he was in Australia with me—and he told me a story that made total sense to me. He hadn’t written in a while and he said after he wrote his first record he was doing something in his garage with his toolbox and he spilled a bunch of ball bearings on the floor. And as soon as he got down on his knees and was picking those up, the side of his brain that writes songs kicked in. You have to kind of keep the other side busy to open up the side where inspiration comes in. I don’t know about others, but that seems to work for me.
You mentioned co-writing. Which have been some of your most memorable experiences collaborating?
I resisted co-writing in my early career except with my buddy Steve Goodman. He was one of my earliest co-writers and that was just because we were such good buddies. When I got down to Nashville, I moved here in March of 1980, and down here anybody you bump into, one out of three of them is a songwriter. And so a lot of people who became my friends also happen to be songwriters so I couldn’t help but write with them because I hang out with them. And I like to keep it that way rather than making an appointment with a stranger. This way, if you write with somebody that you like to hang out with then it’s not a total waste if you don’t write a song that day.
Who are some of your favorite songwriting friends?
Pat McLaughlin here in Nashville. He’s a really great musician. He was out on the road with me for the last three years. He’s been doing a lot of other things now but we still get together and every time we sit down it’s like he finishes my sentences and reads my thoughts and vice versa. It’s almost like a ping pong match. It goes back and forth, like we’re reading each other’s minds.
Your songs have been performed by so many artists through the years. Which covers stand out?
Bonnie Raitt doing “Angel from Montgomery.” And Bette Midler and Joan Baez, both their versions of “Hello in There.”
I’ve heard Bob Dylan considers you one of his favorite songwriters. A big compliment coming from someone who doesn’t hand them out often. Who are your favorite songwriters?
Bob Dylan. Kristofferson. Gordon Lightfoot. Stevie Wonder. There’s a bunch of them I really like. Townes Van Zandt. Guy Clark.