At 70, John Prine is the hippest song­writer in Nashville

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - KRISTIN M. HALL

NASHVILLE — The first time a new coun­try song­writer named Kacey Mus­graves saw one of her song­writ­ing he­roes, John Prine, she had an un­usual propo­si­tion when she ap­proached.

“I said, ‘Hey, my name is Kacey and I am a re­ally big fan. I don’t want to of­fend you or any­thing, but is there any way you might want to burn one with me?’” Mus­graves re­called say­ing af­ter one of his shows in Nashville, Ten­nessee.

Mus­graves, who would later go on to win two Grammy Awards for her 2013 ma­jor la­bel de­but al­bum, was hop­ing to ful­fil a fan­tasy of smok­ing a joint with Prine. It was also the premise of an un­re­leased song she had writ­ten that some­how ended up on Prine’s desk.

Prine, who has sur­vived a cou­ple of bouts of can­cer, po­litely de­clined.

“He says, ‘Well, I don’t do that any­more, but if I did, I would with you,’” Mus­graves, who is now 28, re­called.

This 70-year-old for­mer mail­man from Chicago is the hippest writer in Nashville and still in de­mand. Prine has be­come an af­fa­ble song­writ­ing guru for many of Nashville’s tal­ented young artists, in­clud­ing coun­try rebel Sturgill Simp­son, Amer­i­cana dar­lings Ja­son Is­bell and his wife, Amanda Shires, and rocker Dan Auer­bach of the Black Keys.

All those artists have lined up to open for Prine, when they are easily sell­ing out their own venues as head­lin­ers.

“I have met some re­ally great peo­ple in the last five years that it’s easy to see that mu­sic in gen­eral is in good hands,” Prine said in an in­ter­view from his of­fice, which is dec­o­rated year round with Christ­mas lights and a white Christ­mas tree.

Prine pub­lished his first book in April, a song­book called “Be­yond Words,” which fea­tures gui­tar chords, fam­ily pho­tos, hand­writ­ten or typed lyrics with his edit­ing marks and witty mus­ings along­side some of his most well-known songs, from “Sam Stone,” “An­gel from Mont­gomery,” “Par­adise,” and “Hello in There.” Prine’s rein­vig­o­rated ca­reer came af­ter neck can­cer in the late ‘90s left him with a much lower and grit­tier voice. Af­ter his re­cov­ery, he just moved his songs to lower key.

“Some of my old­est songs that I used to per­form ev­ery night be­came brand spank­ing new just be­cause I changed the key,” Prine said.

He started his own record la­bel Oh Boy in Nashville in the early ‘80s, which sold his CDs by direct mail to fans. He en­joys his in­de­pen­dence from ma­jor la­bels, even if it has meant fewer sales. He says his only ad­vice to young song­writ­ers is don’t give up their pub­lish­ing rights in a record deal.

Auer­bach and Prine wrote sev­eral songs to­gether, in­clud­ing the ti­tle track for Auer­bach’s new solo al­bum, “Wait­ing On a Song.”

“It was like hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion re­ally,” the 38-year-old singer said of writ­ing with Prine. “And I think for me, that’s what John does so well with his mu­sic. It’s not over your head. He uses sim­ple lan­guage to con­vey big mean­ing.”

The Grammy-win­ner has taken on heavy top­ics in­clud­ing coal min­ing on Ap­palachia, the treat­ment of Viet­nam vet­er­ans and the lone­li­ness of grow­ing old, and earned praises from Bob Dy­lan, Bon­nie Raitt and Kris Kristof­fer­son, who helped Prine get his first record deal. But he also likes to write with hu­mour, as ev­i­denced by an­other pop­u­lar duet with Iris De­ment “In Spite of Our­selves,” that con­tains some of his best one­lin­ers about love and mar­riage.

“I think John is very youth­ful at heart,” Mus­graves said. “He’s a big kid. So nat­u­rally he gets along with peo­ple that are younger than him. But also he prob­a­bly rec­og­nizes him­self in a lot of the upand-com­ing song­writ­ers that re­spect him.”

His last al­bum in 2016 was a col­lec­tion of clas­sic coun­try duets with artists like Mus­graves, Ali­son Krauss and Mi­randa Lam­bert. He hasn’t re­leased an al­bum of new songs in 12 years, but his wife and man­ager, Fiona, and his son, Jody, who runs his la­bel, con­vinced him it was time again.

He’s go­ing back in the stu­dio in July to record new mu­sic and he’s also been nom­i­nated for artist of the year at this year’s Amer­i­cana Hon­ors and Awards show held in Septem­ber.

“I like the scene in Nashville,” Prine said. “I am not par­tic­u­larly happy with mod­ern coun­try mu­sic, but it’s part of a tra­di­tion.”

MARK HUMPHREY, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

John Prine says he’s go­ing to “stick around Nashville and see what hap­pens” to coun­try mu­sic.

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