LORD OF THE SONG­BOOK

With an eye on open­ing a nightclub in the af­ter­life, Amer­i­can singer­song­writer John Prine is re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia for the first time in 25 years, writes An­drew McMillen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music - John Prine

Among all the shows John Prine has played in al­most five decades as a sto­ry­telling song­writer in the folk and coun­try tra­di­tions, two stand out. The first was his very first show at an open-mic night in Chicago in 1969, where — af­ter be­ing chal­lenged by a soz­zled stranger — he got up to per­form three songs he had stu­diously com­posed and ar­ranged while day­dream­ing dur­ing his day job de­liv­er­ing the mail.

The first of these was Sam Stone, a song about a Viet­nam vet­eran who re­turned home with a heroin ad­dic­tion. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” he sang in its cho­rus. “Je­sus Christ died for nothin’, I sup­pose.”

When he fin­ished singing, there was no ap­plause; mem­bers of the au­di­ence ei­ther stared or sobbed at the strange, wound­ing tale they had just heard. He fol­lowed it with a song about lone­li­ness, Hello in There, and Par­adise, about a dis­ap­pear­ing Ken­tucky coal town; all three are now re­garded as clas­sics, and that ini­tially icy re­cep­tion soon led to reg­u­lar gigs within Chicago’s folk scene that al­lowed him to leave mail de­liv­ery be­hind in search of more songs.

The sec­ond show that sticks in his mind was at a theatre in Bris­tol, Ten­nessee. It was Prine’s first con­cert af­ter un­der­go­ing throat surgery to re­move can­cer, and the sur­geon’s hand­i­work had dra­mat­i­cally al­tered the sto­ry­teller’s key in­stru­ment to the point where he was un­sure whether his ca­reer in the per­form­ing arts could con­tinue.

“I lost the power in my voice,” Prine re­calls. “First it was a whis­per, then it grew, but it didn’t have any real power be­hind it. I had to change the keys I played all the songs in.”

Back­stage in Bris­tol in 1997, he was ner­vous about his abil­ity to per­form and how his au­di­ence would re­spond to his new, deeper voice. “There were 800 peo­ple at that show, and I stayed and shook hands with ev­ery one of them after­wards,” he says. “That one was quite spe­cial. It turned out re­ally good. I’ve been smil­ing ever since.”

When Re­view reaches Prine by phone, he is sit­ting in an air­port lounge in Mex­ico City, ahead of a short hol­i­day with his wife, Fiona, who is also his man­ager. He has just been named as a nom­i­nee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame along­side the likes of Ra­dio­head, Rage Against the Ma­chine and Ste­vie Nicks. “To­tally un­ex­pected,” he says of the nom­i­na­tion, with audi­ble de­light.

Hav­ing joined the Nash­ville Song­writ­ers Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015, this lat­est recog­ni­tion is fit­ting for a man in the twi­light of his ca­reer who has laboured over earthy, un­der­stated song­writ­ing and his acous­tic gui­tar for much of his life. Among those who care about the craft of words and mu­sic, his name is ut­tered in the same hushed tones re­served for the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bon­nie Raitt and Kris Kristof­fer­son — who once said of his friend: “He’s so good, we’re gonna have to break his fin­gers.”

Mel­bourne singer and song­writer Tim Rogers is a long-time ad­mirer who men­tioned Prine in the open­ing lines of the 2000 You Am I sin­gle Dam­age. “He’s one of the gi­ants, but he car­ries him­self with a very light, deft touch,” says Rogers. “My favourite quote of John’s is, ‘I’d leave a great song for a sand­wich’; even though he’s so con­cise and vis­ual in his song­writ­ing, and he has an econ­omy that you know he puts a lot of work into his songs — but he’s never given the im­pres­sion that he’s tor­tured by it.”

When he vis­its Aus­tralia in March, it will be his first trip here since 1993, when he per­formed at the sec­ond WOMADe­laide fes­ti­val. In April, Prine re­leased his first al­bum of new songs in 13 years. The cover art fea­tures him star­ing down the bar­rel of the cam­era, and the sub­text of that im­age is as clear as the frank na­ture of its 10 tracks: with John Prine, what you see is what you get.

In When I Get to Heaven, he out­lines his wish­list for the af­ter­life, which in­cludes open­ing a nightclub called the Tree of For­give­ness — also the al­bum ti­tle — as well as smok­ing a ci­garette “that’s nine miles long”.

Prine is still here, though, and still singing. Oc­to­ber 9, the day we spoke, was the day be­fore his 72nd birth­day, and the over­all im­pres­sion he gives is that of a man con­tent and com­fort­able in the life he’s built for him­self. He and Fiona are in tran­sit, in search of the sun, with his birth­day plans in­clud­ing a seat on the beach and “hav­ing some nice li­ba­tion in my hand” — likely his pre­ferred cock­tail of vodka and gin­ger ale.

The Nash­ville-based mu­si­cian jokes about the chal­lenges of be­ing mar­ried to his man­ager — “The tricky thing is ac­tu­ally say­ing no; there’s great con­se­quences if I say no!” — be­fore con­ced­ing that, jokes aside, it’s ac­tu­ally rather won­der­ful for the love of his life and his ca­reer to be so in­ter­twined. “I’m 72 years old to­mor­row,” he says. “It can’t get bet­ter than that.”

Not long ago, af­ter a par­tic­u­larly good show, Prine was get­ting un­dressed and dis­cov­ered that he had been car­ry­ing 42c in his pocket: a quar­ter, a dime, a nickel and two pen­nies; one old, one new. “I’m re­ally not a su­per­sti­tious guy, but I said, ‘That must be a good sign’,” he re­calls.

When a New York Times re­porter asked if he had any strange rit­u­als that he fol­lowed be­fore each per­for­mance, Prine told the truth, and the news­pa­per printed it. “Then my wife went home and made me a leather pouch to carry my coins in,” he says with a laugh. “I guess now I’m su­per­sti­tious. I think that’s the only one I got.”

As to whether the pres­ence of those five metal­lic cir­cles truly helps him lead his band through a tow­er­ing song­book stretch­ing back nearly 50 years — well, if he thinks it helps him, then it does. And when he re­turns to Aus­tralia next year, now you know ex­actly what he’ll be car­ry­ing in his pocket.

I LOST THE POWER IN MY VOICE. I HAD TO CHANGE THE KEYS I PLAYED ALL THE SONGS IN JOHN PRINE

per­forms in Bris­bane on March 5 next year, Mel­bourne on March 7 and Syd­ney, March 9.

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