Cancer-free and on the verge of 70, John Prine looks ahead to a creatively robust era

Cancer-free and on the verge of 70, John Prine looks ahead to a creatively robust era
Singer-songwriter John Prine is back with a new album of country duets, "For Better, or Worse," after reactivating his indie record company, Oh Boy Records. (Josh Britt)

It's been more than a decade since acclaimed singer-songwriter John Prine released his last studio album, "Fair & Square," in 2005.

Prine is remedying that with "For Better, or Worse," a just-released new collection of duets of vintage country songs. The album sees Prine working with an all-star batch of female collaborators, including Miranda Lambert, Iris DeMent, Alison Krauss, Kacey Musgraves, Lee Ann Womack and several more.


But don't think that Prine came to the project entirely of his own volition.

"What's the word — boondoggled? Hornswaggled?" the former mailman and U.S. Army veteran said with an easy chuckle while seated at a table off the deserted bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt on a recent afternoon.

The artist, whose songs such as "Hello in There" and "Angel From Montgomery" are modern standards, was in Los Angeles for an appearance at the Grammy Museum with fellow musician and acolyte Sturgill Simpson.

"They tricked me into doing this duets record," he said, referring to his wife, Fiona, and eldest son, Jody, who also now serve as his manager and head of his record label, Oh Boy Records.

He's only half kidding.

When he emerged in 1971, thanks in large part to serious cheerleading from Kris Kristofferson, Prine was labeled a "new Dylan" for his lyrically astute folk-based songs. Check "Sam Stone," about the heavy toll the Vietnam War exacted on a veteran, or "Hello in There," which tracks the loneliness of old age, or the instant classic of "Paradise," in which Prine traces the ecological damage inflicted in the mining country around Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

"Back then I didn't realize what the whole singer-songwriter thing was," he said. "Record people turned into publishers, and they were grabbing guys left and right hoping people would hit. I don't know if [the artists] knew, but a lot of guys left by the wayside after one album. They'd sign a great songwriter even if he had just one great song — sign them and have half their publishing for a lifetime."

Prine exited that world when he created Oh Boy Records and started releasing albums for himself—originally only by mail order. He said he sold considerably fewer copies, but he still came out ahead financially. It's a business model scores of artists have adopted since.

He said he's still working to reclaim ownership of his first four albums: "John Prine," "Diamonds in the Rough," "Sweet Revenge" and "Common Sense."

"I'll go to the movies and hear 'Angel From Montgomery' in some film and nobody ever even told me about it," he said. "They don't tell you your stuff is going to be in a movie. They don't have to, so they don't tell you. You get paid eventually."

The new album represents a sequel of sorts to his 1999 duets album "In Spite of Ourselves," another series of duets with female singers that included DeMent, Emmylou Harris, Sara Watkins, as well as a couple of token men, including Josh Ritter and Kane Welch Kaplin.

Fiona and Jody Prine floated the idea of issuing a vinyl version of "In Spite of Ourselves," but initially thought they'd need to make it a two-LP set to have room for the original 14 tracks plus the half dozen bonus tunes they envisioned.

"We didn't have any tracks left over" from the original sessions, said Prine, who turns 70 on Oct. 10. "I said, 'Well, I can do that. I'll find six girls and do six songs and you can put out a vinyl version.' So I did the six songs, and they said, 'How about seven more and then we'll have a new album.' And that's how it came about."

Whimsical as it all sounds, it's coming after tragedy hit Prine's world. Last year, his manager of nearly 45 years, Al Bunetta, who also ran Oh Boy, died at 72 after being diagnosed with cancer — something Prine has battled successfully in two bouts in the last 18 years.

Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell upon receiving album of the year award from John Prine at the 2016 Americana Music Assn Awards in Nashville.
Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell upon receiving album of the year award from John Prine at the 2016 Americana Music Assn Awards in Nashville. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

"It was really sudden," Prine said. "Nobody knew Al was sick. He looked like the picture of health, and maybe complained a little bit now and then about his stomach. He was diagnosed and eight days later he died. It was boom! That quick.

Prine said he initially considered finding another manager, but then thought better of it.

"I'm not nuts about going around looking for a manager at this point in my life."

So his third wife, Fiona Whelan, a native of Ireland with whom he's had three children in the last 34 years, stepped into the role, and they drafted Jody to get the label up and running.

"When they took over the company, they looked over all the old books and discovered that 'In Spite of Ourselves' … was just a slow burner after it caught on [and] it's sold around 350,000 copies. I would never keep track of that stuff."

While the idea of the vinyl edition spawned the sequel, it also now has Prine back at work writing songs for what he refers to as the next "John Prine record."

"That's the logical question, even for me: OK, great, another duet record — but where's the John Prine record?" he said. "It's been 10 years since I had a John Prine record out, but I'm feeling the pressure now because my record company is my family."

"I've got the burner on and I'm trying to get through it, but it's a slow process these days. Writing songs used to be my hobby; it used to be my getaway. Now it's my family business…. I'm about halfway through writing a new record and I hope to be in the studio no later than January."

Prine's loyal following includes no less than Bob Dylan, who told an interviewer in 2009, "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind-trips to the Nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs."

Many of his fans are willing to cut Prine some slack about the slow pace. Since he first was diagnosed with neck cancer in 1998, he's released just two new studio albums, "In Spite of Ourselves" in 1999 and "Fair & Square." He needed radiation treatment and the removal of some nerves in his tongue, and underwent physical therapy to allow him to return to playing music and singing.

The cancer treatment was the source of one of pop's great witty comebacks. At the time, his doctor said he wanted to create special shields around Prine's vocal cords to protect them from the damage the radiation might cause. "Have you ever heard me sing?" Prine asked.

In 2013, doctors also found cancer on one of his lungs. It was successfully removed in surgery.

Prine, however, isn't so forgiving of his slowed-down pace.

"I can blame a lot of things for not writing songs," Prine says, "but cancer isn't one of them. I still have that thing in me where if I can get out of work I will.  Now I've got my back against the wall and I've got to go write."

The two-time Grammy Award winner has long demonstrated a gift for blending humor, insight about human nature and emotional poignancy in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

In his 1986 song "Linda Goes to Mars," he captures the emotional gulf between a husband and wife in a lighthearted way that doesn't diminish the anguish:


I just found out yesterday that Linda goes to mars

Every time I sit and look at pictures of used cars

She'll turn on the radio and sit down in her chair

And look at me across the room, as if I wasn't there

For Prine, those observations, and the straight-to-the-gut way he relates them, comes from really listening to the way people communicate.

"If you listen to people talk," he said, "when people actually talk, they talk in melodies. If they get angry, their voice rises and it's more of a staccato thing. When they ask for something, they're real sweet.

He pauses. "It's all music."

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