As many critics and listeners have noticed, today's country songwriters often reference the work of such down-home performers as Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks. But country songwriting started to change in the 1960s, when the innovative work of Fred Neil, John Hartford, Jimmy Webb and Bob Dylan began to echo within the well-guarded fortress of Nashville conservatism. Of the many songwriters who took their cues from Dylan, John Prine may be the greatest, and Prine's mastery stems from the way he combines musical conservatism with what can only be termed poetic genius.
When Prine released his now-famous 1971 self-titled debut album, rock critics were searching for what they termed "New Dylans" — as singer-songwriters began to come into prominence, such performers as Prine, Loudon Wainwright III and Elliott Murphy seemed to further Dylan's approach. (Rock writer Greil Marcus listed 100 "New Dylans" in 1981's The Book of Rock Lists — the list included Prine, Murphy and Wainwright, along with the likes of Steve Forbert, Ian Hunter and Dylan himself.)
That era now seems impossibly remote — by 1971, rock and country music had started to make tentative, self-conscious overtures to each other, as if the two genres were estranged cousins who decided it made sense to finally put aside their differences. Dylan had recorded in Nashville, and The Byrds had played The Grand Ole Opry. Gram Parsons had used futuristic steel guitar on The Flying Burrito Brothers' 1969 full-length, The Gilded Palace of Sin, while real country singers such as George Jones simply kept on doing what they'd always done.
If Dylan cast the longest shadow over Prine, you will also hear echoes of Chuck Berry in such Prine tunes as "Shop Talk," a superb song Prine wrote with John Burns for 1980's Storm Windows. Dylan circled around his ostensible subject on such songs as "I'll Keep It With Mine" and "Lo and Behold!" while Prine confronted the craziness of American culture with gusto and self-possession on John Prine. "You got news for me / I got nothing for you," he sings on that record's "Quiet Man." Running down the road to get away from everything, or noticing how a topless lady can have something up her sleeve, Prine made the cultural and social dislocations of the '60s seem funny and terrifying throughout the brilliant John Prine.
Born in Illinois in 1946, Prine emerged from a Chicago folk music scene that also boasted such singers as Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc. Goodman would go on to work with Prine on several albums, while Koloc delivered a reading of Prine's now-classic song "Angel From Montgomery" on her 1972 full-length, Hold on to Me. An accomplished singer who would later record her 1974 LP You're Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning in Nashville, Koloc sang "Angel From Montgomery" in pristine fashion, as if merely hitting the notes allowed her to interpret the lyrics.
"Angel From Montgomery" would receive a more soulful reading when Bonnie Raitt recorded it in 1974. Like the other songs on John Prine — the record includes the genially stoned "Illegal Smile," along with other uncanny classics — "Angel From Montgomery" uses basic musical elements in reassuring but inventive ways.
Prine continued to make brilliant records through the '70s — his 1975 Common Sense reveals the songwriter as a master of musical and verbal detail. "I got competition everywhere I go," Prine sings on the record's "Middleman," and the song also mentions Natalie Wood and a cook with a "short-order face." With Steve Cropper's production adding organ and background vocals, Common Sense is a triumph of the kind of studio rock that emerged in the '70s in the wake of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and The Band's first two albums.
After releasing Storm Windows, Prine started his own label, Oh Boy Records. His later releases are just as assured as his first efforts, with 1991's The Missing Years a testament to his songwriting chops. Cut with a cast of female duet partners that includes Connie Smith and Iris DeMent, Prine's 1999 In Spite of Ourselves features him paying tribute to old-school Nashville songwriting — he sounds at home covering Bobby Braddock, with whom he's collaborated. Prine makes classic Nashville songwriting sound almost as weird as his own tunes, and that's a feat that even Bob Dylan has never matched.
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