Hello Again : John Prine may benefit from the rediscovery of singer-songwriters
If you listen closely--past the roar of heavy metal, the pulse of dance-pop and the machine-gun insistence of rap--you might just hear early whispers of the return of the intimate, artful stylings of the singer-songwriter.
The timing couldn’t be better for John Prine, who is about to release his first studio album in five years. Titled “The Missing Years” and featuring guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and Bonnie Raitt, the album is due in stores Sept. 16.
That’s three days before Prine--perhaps the most consistently absorbing male singer-songwriter of the ‘70s--begins a national tour opening for Raitt, who has made his “Angel From Montgomery” a fixture in her shows for years. The pair will be at the Starlight Bowl in San Diego on Oct. 9, the Universal Amphitheatre on Oct. 18 and 19, and the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Oct. 20.
Bob Dylan set the standard for Prine and other contemporary troubadours, including Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Neil Young, whose work established the singer-songwriter movement as the dominant voice in pop in the ‘70s. But that was all washed away in the ‘80s as the emphasis in pop shifted from ideas to musical textures.
Now, however, an increasing number of industry observers believe that pop audiences are hungry for music with more of a personal, introspective tone. As evidence, they point to Tracy Chapman’s wildly successful debut album, the appeal of MTV’s acoustic “Unplugged” series and the emergence of a new crop of singer-songwriters.
Among the newcomers getting attention: Will T. Massey, a 22-year-old Texan whose debut on MCA was produced by Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan; James McMurtry, the 29-year-old son of novelist Larry McMurtry, and Michael McDermott, a 23-year-old from Chicago who was discovered by Brian Koppelman, who also found Chapman.
On the phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn., Prine, who will turn 45 this month, seemed intrigued by all the talk about a commercial resurgence for singer-songwriters.
“I guess it’s just the pendulum swinging again,” he said. “What happened in the ‘70s is that the record industry got so tied up in the singer-songwriter thing that they went overboard.
“There were some great singers around in the ‘70s, but they didn’t have the respect of the industry because they didn’t write their own songs. It was like, people would go, ‘All that guy does is open his mouth and sing. Big deal.’
“So, it was only a matter of time before the whole thing went the other way--and that’s happened in the ‘80s. Now, people seem to be asking for songs again . . . songs that talk to them about what’s going on in the world. But there may be more of a balance this time--not so much all-or-nothing again.”
Prine sounded upbeat on the line, but he acknowledged that there were times in the last five years when he wondered about his own future in music. He has enough of a following to always be able to tour, but he wondered about his own will.
“I did go through a lot of questioning,” he said. “When we started on this record last November, in fact, I had the thought in the back of my mind that it might be a swan song, so I worked real hard on it so that I could feel I said goodby (with style).
“It wasn’t so much that I had trouble writing songs but a question of whether I still wanted to write them. You get the feeling sometimes that you’re standing still, playing the same places. Even though the audiences are enthusiastic, it’s mostly the same people you see year after year, and it was like standing in the middle of a room and telling your friends the same stories.”
Few pop artists have received as much instant acclaim as Prine did when Atlantic Records released his debut album 20 years ago.
Even Dylan had to wait until his second album before being hailed as the new Woody Guthrie. People started calling Prine the new Dylan as soon as test pressings of his debut, titled simply “John Prine,” arrived.
An ex-Chicago mailman who wrote many of his early songs on his route, Prine introduced in that 1971 album songs whose images were at once original and familiar--scenes that were cinematic in their description and penetrating in their feelings.
Above all, the songs were compassionate, sometimes universal tales of loneliness and yearning, often dealing in matters outside the normal boundaries of pop.
“Hello in There,” which became Prine’s most popular song thanks to an exquisite version by Bette Midler on her hit debut album, summarized many of the qualities of Prine’s art. It was a poignant look at the way society isolates old people:
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare
As if you didn’t care.
Say hello in there.
“Sam Stone,” another song that remains a crowd favorite, was an early look at the disillusionment of many Vietnam vets--a song in the stark style that Springsteen would explore in his 1982 album “Nebraska”:
Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request
While the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
But life had lost its fun
And there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the GI Bill
For a flag-draped casket on a local heroes’ hill.
Prine didn’t match the consistency of that album in a series of recordings for Atlantic and Asylum in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, but he continued to inject his songs with the grace, humor and innocence that you’d expect from great novels or short stories.
One problem commercially was that his voice was ragged. If Prine had arrived in the ‘60s when individuality was prized by radio programmers, he may have had enough radio exposure to achieve a large fraction of Dylan’s commercial success. But Prine was simply ignored by radio in the ‘70s, a time when even Dylan had only one Top 20 radio hit, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Prine continued to be a popular concert attraction, selling out shows regularly as he did 80 to 100 shows a year, sometimes sharing a club or festival bill with other admired underdogs, including Raitt.
Frustrated by his lack of success within the formal record-biz machinery, Prine rejected other label offers after being dropped in 1981 by Asylum Records. He instead started his own, independently distributed Oh Boy Records. “The Missing Years” is his fourth studio album on the label--and the most affecting since 1985’s “Aimless Love,” a moving series of psychological studies.
Prine’s powers of irony and observation are again evident in the album’s best songs.
Typical of his style, “The Sins of Memphisto” touches on the loss of innocence:
Sally used to play with her Hula-Hoops
Now she tells her problems
To therapy groups
Grampa’s on the front lawn
Staring at a rake
Wondering if his marriage was a terrible mistake
I’m sitting on the front steps
Drinking Orange Crush
Wondering if it’s possible.
If I could still blush.
In “All the Best,” he talks about bittersweet feelings after a divorce, balancing his darkest and most generous impulses with simple eloquence:
I wish you love
I guess I wish
You all the best
I wish you don’t
Do like I do
And ever fall in love
With someone like you
Like most other songwriters, Prine once resisted dissecting his songs, but he now feels more comfortable talking about them.
“I’m not a good letter writer,” he said when asked about that song. “But maybe this is what I would have wrote if I had written a letter to my ex-wife. But as a songwriter, I didn’t want to appear like it was just about one person. I wanted it a little wider. Still, it’s about as straightforward and down to earth as you can get when talking about love.”
Prine cites Hank Williams as his earliest influence--and you can hear in Prine’s most moving work some of the irony of such Williams tales as “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” and the burning intensity of an “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
“When you are real young, you listen to all kinds of records, everything from Spike Jones to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry records,” he recalled. “But my father liked Hank Sr. so much that I used to just sit and watch how he would be so moved by the songs. In fact, I might have been more affected by the way the songs touched him than by the songs themselves--they seemed to have such power.”
But it was Bob Dylan, he said, who had the greatest effect on his writing.
“I was already playing the guitar a little and listening to Roger Miller a lot, but then I heard about Dylan through my brother and he just laid me flat. ‘Hattie Carroll’ was the first Dylan song I remember hearing, and it all seemed so real. The words were everyday words. . . . ‘slain by a cane,’ but they were put together so well. They sounded good, and they added up to something.”
Critics have said much the same thing about Prine--so it was frustrating through the ‘70s to see him turn out excellent work without reaching a wider audience. It was even more frustrating in the ‘80s to see him drop out of sight for so long.
Prine chuckled when asked if “The Missing Years” is meant to be a sly reference to his own low recording profile since 1986.
“No,” he said. “It was just a convenient title--taken from one of the songs in the album. But there was something missing for a while. There was the divorce, which stretched out for a long time, but also the loss of the need or desire to write anymore. It was scary at first because it was something so new to me.”
It’s as if he were taking the same kind of self-inventory that characters in his songs often go through.
Prine started a couple of albums but just lost interest. The new album got rolling late last year when Prine’s manager, Al Bunetta, put the singer together in a Los Angeles studio with Howie Epstein, longtime bassist with Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers band.
Epstein, who produced Carlene Carter’s latest album, has been a Prine fan for years but always believed that his voice needed to be better spotlighted on the albums.
Epstein also pressed Prine to come up with new material for the album. Two of the best songs--"Sins of Memphisto” and “It’s a Big Old Goofy World"--were written during the final sessions.
“I didn’t tell my manager or my producer that I was thinking about the album as my last, but that’s what was in the back of my mind,” Prine said during the phone interview. “What finally happened, though, was that I enjoyed making the record so much that it has recharged me. I’m getting energy back from the record, and it’s not even out yet.”
Now, Prine is looking forward to touring with Raitt, who broke through to major commercial success with her “Nick of Time” album in 1989 after years of being a musicians’ favorite like Prine.
“I thought what happened with Bonnie’s album was just wonderful,” Prine said. “We spent a lot of time over the years, playing the same clubs, traveling the same roads and talking about music.
Of his own songs, Prine said, the wide acceptance of “Hello in There” is the most pleasing. “The satisfying thing isn’t so much all the records Bette sold, but the different audience she reached with it,” he said. “She took the song to the same audience that 50 years ago might have listened to Cole Porter. It was a song whose emotion was understood by everyone.
“But you never know who’s going to react to a song when you write it because you really are only writing for yourself--often, in my case, to exorcise feelings that are troubling me.”
Prine said it’s that “exorcism” that leads him almost subconsciously to inject optimistic lines in what start out as the most pessimistic songs--such as “It’s a Big Old Goofy World,” from the new album.
In the song, Prine strings together a series of adages in what may have started out as an angry song but ends as a humorous, good-natured one:
Kiss a little baby
Give the world a smile
If you take an inch
Give ‘em back a mile
‘Cause if you lie like a rug
And you don’t give a damn
You’re never gonna be
As happy as a clam
“Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to describe the world the way I wished it would be,” he said, in his typically low-key, slightly self-deprecating way.
“That’s why when I finish a song, I’ll sit back and look at it and think, ‘Now if you could only practice some of those things in your own life . . . you wouldn’t have to write all these damn songs.’ ”