From singing mailman to Nashville legend, John Prine traces the crooked road traveled by the brilliant songwriter responsible for “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” and “That’s the Way That the World Goes ’Round”.
Series: American Music Series
With a range that spans the lyrical, heartfelt songs “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” and “Paradise” to the classic country music parody “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” John Prine is a songwriter’s songwriter. Across five decades, Prine has created critically acclaimed albums—John Prine (one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time), Bruised Orange, and The Missing Years—and earned many honors, including two Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association, and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His songs have been covered by scores of artists, from Johnny Cash and Miranda Lambert to Bette Midler and 10,000 Maniacs, and have influenced everyone from Roger McGuinn to Kacey Musgraves. Hailed in his early years as the “new Dylan,” Prine still counts Bob Dylan among his most enthusiastic fans. In John Prine, Eddie Huffman traces the long arc of Prine’s musical career, beginning with his early, seemingly effortless successes, which led paradoxically not to stardom but to a rich and varied career writing songs that other people have made famous. He recounts the stories, many of them humorous, behind Prine’s best-known songs and discusses all of Prine’s albums as he explores the brilliant records and the ill-advised side trips, the underappreciated gems and the hard-earned comebacks that led Prine to found his own successful record label, Oh Boy Records. This thorough, entertaining treatment gives John Prine his due as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation.
1. Special Delivery
2. Thursday's Child
3. Call of Duty
4. Open-Mike Night
5. In the King's Footsteps
6. Singers and Songwriters
Interlude: Talking New Bob Dylan
7. Scattered, Smothered, and Covered
8. Tangled Up in Blue
9. Seeking Asylum
10. Oh Boy
11. Tunnel of Love
12. Into the Great Wide Open
13. A Close Shave
14. Your Flag Decal Still Won't Get You into Heaven
15. Next to the Last True Romantic
Stephen Colbert wasn't a pompous, reactionary moron, but he played one on TV. On this episode of the long-running Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, he struggled to maintain his trademark insincerity. The star, trim and youthful as he pushed fifty, was still months away from being tapped to replace David Letterman as host of The Late Show. He had just made his nightly glory-hog jog across the Colbert Report set and taken a seat next to his guest. He couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "I'm an enormous fan, an enormous fan," the host said. Colbert was born in 1964, the last year of the Baby Boom. His guest was born at the front end, in 1946.
Now it was 2013, and John Prine had grown corpulent in his golden years, his once-luxuriant mane of black hair a distant memory, its remnants gray and receding. His head tilted at an odd angle, as if its weight were a bit much for his neck. With his round face and gray mustache, Prine had started to resemble Wilford Brimley, the veteran character actor best known in recent years as the TV pitchman who talks about his "diabeetus." Colbert's guest had had dramatic health problems of his own, but lived to tell the tale. The host introduced him as "a Grammy Award–winning singer-songwriter," "a folksinger's folksinger," and a "songwriter's songwriter." He also noted that Prine started his professional career delivering mail. "Were you a mailman's mailman?" Colbert asked. "Were you the kind of mailman that other mailmen wanted to get their mail from?"
Prine grinned and looked at Colbert the way he looks at the world in his songs: from a cockeyed angle. "I was the kind of mailman that dogs couldn't wait to see coming down the street," he replied. Prine is modest to a fault, perpetually countering the vicissitudes of life with a funny story.
His appearance on The Colbert Report happened a couple of weeks after an infamous appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards by Miley Cyrus. The twenty-year-old singer, a former teenage star of the Disney Channel TV show Hannah Montana, shed her good-girl image by taking the stage in rubber underwear, dangling her tongue out of her mouth, and grinding around singer Robin Thicke in a jiggling dance called twerking, popularized by hip-hop artists.
"I've got a beef with you, John Prine," Colbert told the singer. "I'm an enormous fan of yours, but you like to keep it simple. It's mostly just vocals and guitar. Why not flashpots? Why not face paint? Why not someone twerking against you while you're doing your songs?"
Prine paused for a moment before responding: "That would put me in a different tax bracket."
The singers who made it had one thing in common, Barry Poss once told me: They were obsessed with making it. They bet everything on a shot at stardom—often to the exclusion of friends, family, and all the other trappings of a normal life. Poss founded Sugar Hill Records in 1978 and helped launch the careers of Ricky Skaggs, Robert Earl Keen, and Nickel Creek. "Even artists who appear to be calm on the outside, who are in the big leagues, they are driven," Poss said. "They are really driven. They want it badly." For a brief time in the early eighties, it looked as if Sugar Hill was going to sign John Prine, too.
But Prine, in a rare show of ambition, decided to start his own record label instead. Prine seldom displayed a drive for stardom. If he ever wanted it badly, he kept it to himself. For years he didn't even consider himself a songwriter, just a Midwestern kid who liked to "make up songs." When he realized he could earn more money playing those songs than delivering mail, he quit his job at the Post Office—and slept a lot. Where other singers went to extraordinary lengths to get their music heard—moving to New York or Los Angeles, pestering song publishers and club owners—Prine was happy just to have a place to play. He got his first gig on a dare: Somebody challenged him to show what he could do after he grumbled about the talent at an open-mike night. Opportunities seemed to fall into his lap. A few nights a week he would drive his Chevy to Old Town, Chicago's answer to Greenwich Village or the French Quarter, play a few sets, hang out with his friends, then head back home to the apartment out in the suburbs he shared with his wife. One night in the spring of 1971, a friend called him at an Old Town hole-in-the-wall to say that Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka were on the way there to hear him sing. Somebody at the club had to wake Prine up to come to the phone.
That friend, Steve Goodman, had enough ambition for the both of them. Diagnosed with leukemia a couple of years earlier, Goodman knew he was living on borrowed time and hustled constantly to get his songs heard. He did the same thing for his friend Johnny, who might still be just another local hero playing for tips in Chicago bars if Goodman hadn't dragged Kristofferson and Anka over to the Earl of Old Town that night. A few weeks later Prine and Goodman flew to New York on Anka's dime, and they each landed record deals immediately. Just like that, the singing mailman from Maywood, Illinois, had become a labelmate to Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
That's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Prine worked hard for years on one of the few things he had ever really been good at, honing his craft to the point where people would compare him to one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. He watched his father bust his ass for decades at a factory job, making just enough to keep the family in a nondescript rental house on the Midwestern plains, four hundred miles away from his beloved Kentucky hills. Bill Prine would have headed back south in a heartbeat if there had been any other job prospects down there besides mining coal. He died prematurely up north, but his son would eventually find a way to live down south on his own terms. He got there in part by spending countless hours alone in his room learning guitar licks, listening to records, making up songs. He worked for hours with his fiddle-playing brother, took lessons year after year at a folk music school in Chicago, went to see legends play live. He made up in woodshedding, raw talent, and songcraft what he lacked in ambition.
Goodman may have gotten him the audition, but Prine landed the gig all by himself.
"Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism," Bob Dylan told veteran music critic and MTV producer Bill Flanagan in 2009 during a Huffington Post interview. "Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs." Dylan was one of Prine's formative influences, and for much of the seventies Prine and the best of his singer-songwriter peers got labeled, one after the other, "the new Dylan." Unlike other new Dylans such as Bruce Springsteen and Loudon Wainwright III, Prine never had even a fluke hit—though others would top the country charts with his tunes, and Bonnie Raitt would make his "Angel from Montgomery" one of her signature songs.
Born in a working-class suburb of Chicago, he was the son of a beer-drinking union man, a father who loved country music and never got over having to abandon the rolling hills of rural Kentucky for work in a flatland can factory. Prine got drafted as the Vietnam War ramped up, ran an army motor pool, and returned home to his old job as a mailman before another singer-songwriter helped him land a deal with Atlantic Records. "I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene," Dylan told Flanagan. "All that stuff about 'Sam Stone' the soldier junky daddy and 'Donald and Lydia,' where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that."
When he was a kid Prine would stand in front of a mirror strumming a broom, pretending to be Elvis Presley. On his very first album he recorded with the same Memphis musicians who played on Elvis's "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto"—not to mention Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man." The producer of Prine's first three albums, Arif Mardin, had helped create some of the Rascals' biggest hits in the sixties and would go on to do the same for the Bee Gees in the mid-seventies. Over the years Prine would record or write with such luminaries as Steve Cropper, Sam Phillips, John Mellencamp, and Trisha Yearwood. But their hit-making magic never rubbed off on him. He even tried a couple of brief forays into Hollywood.
Prine's triumphs have been deceptively modest, though; he has created a rich and varied career for himself flying under the radar. Film critic Roger Ebert was the first person to champion Prine's music in the media. ABC Television used a Prine song as the theme for a short-lived sitcom. He was an early musical guest on Saturday Night Live and appeared on Austin City Limits almost as many times as Willie Nelson himself. Scores of artists have covered Prine's songs, from Johnny Cash and Bette Midler to George Strait and Miranda Lambert. He showed a DIY spirit by walking away from the major-label machine in the early 1980s and pioneering his own record company, which is still in business long after many other labels have bitten the dust or gotten swallowed by corporate conglomerates. Prine has earned many honors, including two Grammy Awards, induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Over the years he crossed paths with John Belushi, Phil Ochs, Raitt, Springsteen, Dustin Hoffman, David Geffen, Phil Spector, Tom Petty, Billy Bob Thornton, and Andy Griffith. He sobered up after years of serious partying, made the third time the charm when it came to marriages, and survived a bout with neck cancer. (Almost halfway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, Prine would face a new health challenge: lung cancer.) He surrounded himself with a family late in life, and now divides his time between Nashville and Ireland when he's not on the road, still playing dozens of dates every year in theaters across America and Europe. He has been able to count some of the greatest music legends of the twentieth century among his biggest fans, including Cash and Dylan, and his songwriting is cited as an influence by virtually every young songwriter with a twang in his or her voice.
Prine's songs will be his most lasting legacy. A big chunk of his legend rests on the tunes from his self-titled 1971 debut album: "Angel from Montgomery," a remarkably sensitive portrait of a middle-aged Southern housewife written by a Midwestern kid in his early twenties, and the two songs cited by Dylan. "Donald and Lydia," inspired by Prine's days in basic training, may be the sweetest song ever written about masturbation, while "Sam Stone" was years ahead of its time as the story of a Vietnam veteran turned dying addict. The album also included the antiwar "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore," the hippie anthems "Illegal Smile" and "Spanish Pipedream," and "Paradise," a song about the destruction of his family's little Kentucky hometown that would become a bluegrass standard. Bill Monroe, the man who invented bluegrass and gave the genre its name, grew up in the same little corner of Kentucky as Prine's parents, a music-rich region that also spawned early country music star and fingerpicking legend Merle Travis, along with fifties teen heartthrobs and harmony singers the Everly Brothers.
The first time Prine ever met Monroe, somebody told him Prine was the guy who "wrote that song about Muhlenberg County," Prine told writer David Fricke, who penned the liner notes for Great Days: The John Prine Anthology, a definitive two-CD collection of the singer's work released in 1993. (And sadly out of print two decades later.) Monroe replied, "Oh yeah, I thought that was a song I overlooked from the \'20s." Prine and his old buddy Steve Goodman cowrote the classic country parody "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" (aka "the perfect country and Western song," a hit in the seventies for David Allan Coe), though Prine let Goodman take all the credit for it. Over the years Prine wrote and recorded memorable comic songs ("Dear Abby," "The Bottomless Lake"), tragic songs about divorce and death ("Bruised Orange [Chain of Sorrow]," "Lake Marie"), and surreal story songs that defy easy categorization ("Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone," "Jesus the Missing Years"). He did take credit for the No. 1 country hits he cowrote for Don Williams and George Strait. The way he spins tall tales and evokes American folklore has earned him repeated comparisons to Mark Twain. Elvis once asked one of his band members to play a Prine song for him over and over, late into the night.
Two Prine concerts bookended my work on this biography. Toward the early phase of my research on the book, in October 2012, I left my home in the rolling hills of the North Carolina Piedmont and drove up to the mountains to see Prine perform in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at the venue formerly known as the Asheville Civic Center. (Insert generic corporate sponsor name here.) It was the fifth or sixth time I had seen Prine play live, and not one of his better shows. His voice was rough but serviceable, and he seemed disengaged from the audience, talking little between songs, telling remarkably few stories compared to previous concerts I had seen. It was a solid performance, but not a particularly memorable one. Longtime Prine sideman Jason Wilber made the biggest impression on me that night, playing like ten guitarists rolled into one.
Fourteen months later, toward the end of both the writing process and 2013, I had tickets to see Prine again, this time much closer to home, at War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro, North Carolina. Three weeks before the show, I got a Google News alert that Prine had been diagnosed with cancer—again—and was postponing some shows in December as a result. Fortunately, the Greensboro show was still on, along with a concert the following night in Charlotte—the last one before he would go under the knife. During a fine opening set, Justin Townes Earle paused between songs to praise Prine, with whom he had toured periodically over the course of several years: "He's one of the sweetest people I've ever met, and he's one of the most consistent performers I've ever seen." That consistency seemed questionable during Prine's first two or three songs—he could barely croak out his lyrics. "I've got a little frog in my throat tonight," he said after "Picture Show." That was an understatement. "I hope it's just a little one," he continued. "I'm trying to get rid of it by singing." While I felt bad for Prine because of his health problems and struggles to perform, I was disappointed at the prospects of a mediocre concert. "I'm starting to sound like Louis Armstrong," Prine cracked after his third song, "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness."
Then something remarkable happened: Prine did get rid of it by singing—and, perhaps, by taking a few swigs from what looked like a bottle of cough syrup. By the time he sang "Six O'Clock News," four songs into the show, he was starting to sound like his old self again (well, at least his post-neck-cancer, post-chain-smoking self). It was all uphill from there: Prine chatted amiably after almost every song, reminiscing about Goodman and a festival they played nearly thirty years earlier in nearby Galax, Virginia, called Stompin 76, a kind of bluegrass Woodstock. It brought more than 100,000 people to a farm outside a tiny mountain town ill-prepared to host such a horde. Prine and his band played a full half hour longer than the ninety-minute show I had seen the year before, delivering songs recorded throughout his career, from old favorites such as "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" to obscure numbers such as "Iron Ore Betty." He was the second performer I had seen in that same venue sing "Angel from Montgomery" in the span of a week—Bonnie Raitt had given a gorgeous rendition with an extended introduction just a few days before. Prine delivered an early Christmas present, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and introduced "Hello in There" with his customary self-deprecating humor. "I kinda grew up thinking I wanted to be an old person," Prine told the Greensboro crowd. Then he spread his arms wide.
I heard a John Prine song at the first concert I ever attended. It was a hot Saturday in April 1980, Spring Fest on campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Bonnie Raitt shared the bill that day with the Atlanta Rhythm Section and the band I had been obsessed with since sixth grade, the Beach Boys. The stage was out on the football field facing the visitors' side of Kenan Stadium, and Raitt played "Angel from Montgomery." I managed to get my adolescent mind off of her tight striped T-shirt long enough to appreciate hearing this gorgeous, heartfelt ballad. I had already gotten to know the song via Raitt's live version on the soundtrack to the documentary No Nukes.
Like Colbert, I was born at the end of the Baby Boom. I was a month shy of my sixteenth birthday that day I saw Raitt in Chapel Hill, winding down my sophomore year of high school in a mill town twenty-five miles up Highway 54. I would eventually catch up to classic rock, soul, funk, hip-hop, country, jazz, and world music, but in 1980 my sights were set mostly on singer-songwriters. Jackson Browne had been my favorite, with his old buddy Warren Zevon about to overtake him. (Zevon also had an indirect Muhlenberg County connection: He had served as the Everly Brothers' pianist and band leader, was onstage with them when they fell apart in 1973, and wrote "Frank and Jesse James" in tribute to them.) I liked well-crafted, emotionally honest songs, as well as funny songs that showed a twisted sense of humor.
The big FM rock station out of Raleigh, WQDR, played the hell out of Jimmy Buffett, Don McLean, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg, Harry Chapin, Gordon Lightfoot, Arlo Guthrie, and a bunch of other singer-songwriters, but it rarely, if ever, played Prine. In those pre-Internet days, the word on artists spread primarily via word of mouth, radio play, and magazine reviews and features. I eventually picked up on Prine the same way I picked up on a lot of other music, via the recommendations of rock critics—particularly Dave Marsh. His newsletter, then called Rock & Roll Confidential, convinced me to take a chance on Prine's Aimless Love, in 1984, the first album on his new record label, Oh Boy. It was a lot more country than most of the music I listened to in those days, but it still resonated with me.
Prine immediately felt like a kindred spirit, a funny, irreverent guy with a serious side. Anybody who had the audacity to sing the pickup line "I won't do nothin' wrong / Till you say it's right" was OK by me, and "The Bottomless Lake" was a hilarious tall tale that was way up my alley. The most undeniable track on the record was "Unwed Fathers." In the era of Thriller and Born in the USA, Prine stood out from the multiplatinum, stadium-filling rockers via understatement. He offered up a raw emotional tale of a scared teenager facing motherhood alone, singing in a neutral drawl that let the emotions Prine poured into his lyrics speak for themselves. A 1988 live album caught me up on a lot of classic Prine songs that I had missed as a kid in the seventies. That year I did a phone interview with him for a North Carolina newspaper and saw him in concert for the first time.
"When the presidents of CBS or Warner Brothers call to tell me about their problems I can understand, because I'm a mogul, too," Prine cracked. He was chatty and funny, easy to talk to. He talked with me about playing music at home as a child, writing "Sam Stone" a decade before the plight of Vietnam veterans became a common theme for songwriters, and appreciating the latest resurgence of acoustic-based popular music, led at the time by Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. That short phoner merely whetted my appetite. The more I learned about him over the years, the more I wanted to know. Prine held steady as countless genres came and (sometimes) went, from Southern rock and jazz fusion through disco, funk, punk, hip-hop, indie rock, cowpunk, electronica, house, new jack swing, grunge, pop punk, complaint rock, alt-country, crunk, neo-soul, emo, and many others.
In recent years Prine's style of music has fallen under an umbrella term, Americana, that embraces everyone from the Byrds and Emmylou Harris through Steve Earle and Wilco to the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons. (Americana from England!) Despite my ongoing love for artists across many genres, Americana is the genre that—in one form or another—has called me back over and over again, year in and year out. I like the earthiness and emotional honesty, the fiddles and mandolins, the roots in the cultural traditions of a region my ancestors first settled three centuries ago. Those Jackson Browne records I loved as a kid—which showcased the brilliant slide guitar and fiddle work of David Lindley—had been, in retrospect, Americana when Americana wasn't even a thing yet. Some of my favorite latter-day country/Americana artists (Elizabeth Cook, Drive-By Truckers, Those Darlins, Josh Ritter, Brandi Carlile, Miranda Lambert) duet with Prine or cover his songs. Another favorite, Todd Snider, recorded for Prine's label. When I find a new Americana artist I like, a Prine connection often surfaces. In June 2012, shortly after I started working on this book, I stumbled into a show by a fine young Americana band called Wayne Graham from a tiny town in eastern Kentucky, on the opposite end of the state from Muhlenberg County. They quickly earned my respect with their inventive, passionate country rock and their cover of one of my favorite Prine songs, "Fish and Whistle."
When the opportunity came along to make Prine the subject of my first book, I didn't hesitate. Nor did I let it slow me down when I learned that the singer and his manager through most of his adult life, Al Bunetta, would not cooperate with me. (The official reason from Oh Boy headquarters in Music City was that Prine Inc. was working on a documentary and a songbook and considered my book to be "competition." My arguments that my book would complement rather than detract from their projects fell on deaf ears.) Fortunately, Prine has left an exhaustive paper and audio trail over the years—first and foremost being his twenty-two albums (if you count best-of collections and live recordings), but also radio interviews, TV appearances, and a wealth of other sources. During a year of extensive research I happened across dozens of great Prine anecdotes, about topics ranging from brief encounters with Dustin Hoffman and Phil Spector to the incidents that inspired some of his greatest songs. I traveled to Prine's hometown, wandering through the halls of his old high school and the yard of his modest boyhood home. I had lunch at one of Prine's favorite greasy diners in Nashville, hung out with thumbpickers in Muhlenberg County, and wandered the banks of the Green River in the shadow of the giant cooling towers that rose into the skies of rural western Kentucky more than four decades ago as Paradise evaporated. The more I learned about Prine, the stronger a sense of kinship I felt with him. We each grew up in blue-collar families eating our mother's fried chicken, obsessively listening to records for clues about life beyond our hometowns. We spent our summers playing in the woods and exploring a river. He was the third of four boys; I was the fourth of four. We share a love of language, humor, classic movies, and good stories, and in adulthood we have each dealt with divorce, grave health threats, and the challenges of raising sons of our own.
Like the other books in this series, this one focuses on the artist's recorded output, his place in the world, and the mark he has left on it. Writing it has given me a chance to fill in the blanks of Prine's long career, catch up on any music I had missed along the way, and explore the threads that run from song to song, album to album, decade to decade. Some of his albums are better than others, of course, and I offer my perspective on all of them as I explore the brilliant records and the ill-advised side trips, the underappreciated gems and the hard-earned comebacks. I have lived and breathed John Prine's life and music and emerged with a renewed appreciation for his songwriting skills and his ability to make vital records for much of his forty-plus years in the music business. While I note some of his personal ups and downs along the way, I keep the focus primarily where it belongs: on his music. "It's a big old goofy world," Prine reminds us, and his life and work bear that out.
“This book provides behind-the-scenes history of the music industry and engaging anecdotes about musicians, writers and actors, some with whom Prine only rubbed shoulders, and others with whom he built life-long friendships.”
“The unlikely success of the reluctant performer makes for fascinating reading.”
“Weaving well-known biographical details (Prine was a mail carrier in Chicago when he got his start) into meticulous sketches of the making of each album—and reviews of those albums—Huffman offers an admiring portrait of an often restless though always canny songwriter... Huffman’s book will make us want to pick up Prine’s albums and listen to them once again or for the first time.”
“An excellent new biography by Eddie Huffman.”
The Telegraph (UK)
“North Carolina music journalist Eddie Huffman wrote the first-ever biography of Prine that traces the musician from his family roots in Kentucky through struggles with alcohol and cancer in his adult life, to where he stands in the music scene today.”
The State of Things - WUNC
“...an entertaining and worthwhile read for anyone looking for an introduction to the music of the singing postman.”
“I started, with high hopes, to read Huffman’s book. I wasn’t disappointed . . . This veteran music journalist knows how to write.”
“…provid(es) insight into the singer's most significant musical works…Huffman does a good job of conveying his subject’s personality, motivations, and ambitions, and he fills the narrative with humor, mostly by quoting Prine himself.”
“ ...a revealing 2015 biography of the acclaimed mailman-turned-singer-songwriter...”
The Washington Post
“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
Bob Dylan, Huffington Post
“A richly imagistic Midwestern everyguy whose languid good nature defied singer-songwriter smugness.”
“A songwriter’s songwriter.”
“[Huffman] paints a convincing picture of the wry, gravel-voiced Chicago storyteller…this is a sweet little book.”